The Following (Fox, CTV, 9 p.m.) is not HBO's True Detective, nor was it meant to be.
This is vital to note as the violent, fast-moving thriller about a serial killer returns on Fox, and the slow-burning, emotionally violent thriller about a serial killer continues to unfold on HBO. Whereas True Detective dwells long on the mental toll of dealing with evil, The Following breezily presents its hero, Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), as damaged but determined, a nice enough fella who merely had the bad luck to become the obsession of demented killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy).
It's odd how two dramas can both seem genre-specific but miles apart. There are plenty of familiar horror-movie tropes in True Detective, but they are presented as morose reminders that evil is real, not fictional. And The Following emphasizes the bizarre in the horror genre, not the beautiful.
The Following is excellent, escapist entertainment, madly plotted and ingenious. It is not to be sneered at. At its core is the Carroll character. He murdered 14 female students on a college campus where he taught literature. Hardy put him behind bars. Then Carroll escaped and Hardy was dragged into finding and stopping him again. But what was truly eerie about the drama, and remains so as the second season roars back, is the existence of Carroll's small army of deranged and devoted followers.
The series is shockingly good in its presentation of pathetic people who adore the approval of a madman. And, even better in terms of structure and guarantee of addictive viewing, seemingly benign characters regularly turn out to be capable of outrageous violence. Or sympathetic, apparently key characters are murdered. It's bleak, but in a curiously lightweight manner.
This season, Joe Carroll is back from the dead and, it seems, so are his followers. The idea of the mask is central to all the shenanigans. Those followers wear masks to look like Carroll. In groups, they are a terrifying sight. And, yet, so far, we don't know if they are in fact his followers. Possibly his aura has been usurped and he has as much interest in stopping them as Ryan Hardy. We don't know and The Following's ace is that it's never predictable. After the first season's emphasis on the hatred that exists between the two men, we've already had a taste of Hardy putting on a Carroll mask and, the viewer suspects, liking it.
The Following, at 15 episodes – and those episodes move quickly – was designed to compete directly with cable dramas that typically last 10 to 13 episodes. And it can compete, but only on the level of entertainment, not as storytelling art. True Detective is profound; The Following is propulsive, fascinating entertainment.
The gap between the two series does not diminish The Following. True Detective might overthink the detective drama and The Following might underthink it, but there is much to be admired in the Fox drama. It does make a point about our fascination with the most heinous killers, attempts to deal with the resonance they have and ponders why a killer might have adoring acolytes.
As its creator, Kevin Williamson, told TV critics recently, "We live in this sort of age of technology where we're just so empty and lost, we're sitting on our laptops and it's just such a vacant existence. We're soulless, and if we just had one person to say, 'Yes, you're okay,' and hold me and give me a reason to live, then I could reach out and touch and feel and connect. And if it takes a knife, and if I have to stab someone 20 times to feel that, I might just do it. I mean, that's just such a scary idea. It's such a terrifying thought. I think of this man [Joe Carroll] who's bringing order to insanity, who's bringing order to chaos and to killing, and it is all so psychologically disturbing. Yes, we live in a dangerous, sick, twisted time, and this is just my wanderings and musings in that area."
He doesn't make reference to William Faulkner, as the creator of True Detective did. But he's created an invigorating thriller that is far from empty-headed.
Also airing tonight
The Zoomer (Vision TV, 9 p.m.) is back and tonight has a hefty panel discussion about the future of media, and stuff like that. Some important players talk to Conrad Black and Denise Donlon, plus yours truly and Ezra Levant. Anything for ratings, obviously.
All times ET. Check local listings.