The English actor James Purefoy, an impressive figure in a fine suit, moves around the crowded Fox network party smiling uneasily. A Royal Shakespeare Company veteran best known over here for his role as Mark Antony in HBO's Rome, he's not entirely comfortable in the noisy, meet-and-greet atmosphere.
He's here to talk up The Following (starting Monday, Fox, CTV, 9 p.m.) with TV critics, and it's hard for him to hear questions in the clamour. Asked if he has any qualms about the show, he blurts out, "I like TV that grabs you by the throat. That's the best kind of television and that, I hope, is what The Following is."
Then he sees another actor from the drama, 10-year-old Kyle Catlett, and he beams and embraces the boy. He's happily lost to the critics and their questions.
It's a sweet vignette, this scene, but slightly unnerving to those of us who have seen The Following. In it, Purefoy plays Joe Carroll, a seductive serial killer, a university professor with a passion for Edgar Allan Poe and a man with a group of followers who will do his vicious bidding.
Young Catlett plays his son, a boy he hasn't seen for years but who becomes a pawn in a deeply creepy game played out by Carroll's followers.
The killer and the kid: The show is about more than that, but The Following has become a flashpoint in the debate over the impact of violent entertainment on children and on the U.S. culture at large. It has some of the most graphic murder scenes ever seen on network TV. In post-Newtown-and-Aurora-shootings America, The Following seems shockingly raw to some. It has been called "stomach-churning" by one critic. No wonder – in one defining scene, a Joe Carroll follower strips naked, pierces herself in the eye and kills herself by applying an ice-pick to her head.
While The Following was conceived more than a year ago, it now lands in prime time during a perfect storm of controversy about the glorification of violence on TV, in movies and in video games. Episodes of some TV shows were pulled off the air in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn. Movie trailers were pulled and premieres postponed. There was visceral sensitivity about violent entertainment, and it has not gone away.
There is a frenzy of finger-pointing going on. On the one hand, conservative pundits, bluntly opposed to new gun laws, blame the entertainment industry for de-sensitizing everyone. Columnist Charles Krauthammer, in a much-published and discussed column, fulminated, "We live in an entertainment culture soaked in graphic, often sadistic, violence." Out on the fringes, the "Newtown truthers," fevered Internet conspiracy theorists, go so far as to claim the Sandy Hook shootings were a hoax enacted by the TV industry in collusion with the Obama administration to enforce new gun laws.
And so The Following, the first heavily promoted new drama of 2013, is set to air while the U.S. grapples with gun violence, and the National Rifle Association and its supporters point to violent TV, movies and video games as a scourge. TV is a target for those who want to shift all discussion of causality away from guns and gun owners toward the impact of popular culture.
When the National Rifle Association commented on the Sandy Hook shootings, NRA executive-vice-president Wayne LaPierre notoriously implicated Hollywood, whose intent, he said, is to "violate and offend every standard of civilized society by bringing an ever-more-toxic mix of reckless behaviour and criminal cruelty into our homes — every minute of every day of every month of every year."
Not surprisingly, that notion is rejected by Kevin Williamson, The Following's creator (also responsible for Dawson's Creek and the Scream movies). "Who wasn't affected by Sandy Hook? I'm still disturbed by Aurora," he told critics at the Fox event. "We sat in the writers' room and we were all affected by it. … It's very disturbing. But I'm writing fiction. I'm just a storyteller." He also pointed out that his mother, an avid reader who encouraged him to be a writer, gave him Poe's work to read when he was 12 years old. He remembers his schoolteacher being disturbed by his reading material, but his mother was not.
The Following is shockingly good, it should be said. A 10-episode thriller of originality and fiercely timed, fast-paced twists, it's clearly a network's attempt to compete with the must-see adult dramas of HBO and Showtime.
Essentially, it's about a good guy chasing a bad guy. Kevin Bacon, in his first TV role, plays drink-addled, semi-retired FBI agent Ryan Hardy. It was his pursuit and capture of Joe Carroll, years before, that broke him. Carroll had murdered 14 female students on a college campus where he taught literature. Now Joe Carroll has escaped, and Hardy is drawn into the chase.
What's truly disturbing in the show is the emergence of Carroll's twisted, murderous followers. It is relentless in its stark depiction of people who wallow in the approval of a madman. Viewers who invest in a seemingly sympathetic character may soon find that the character is secretly evil, capable of horrific violence or soon to be murdered. Put that bleakness together with the graphic violence, remember that The Following airs at 9 p.m. on an easily accessible TV network, and the controversy about it is easily explained.
At Fox's party for the show, the issue of the impact of TV violence wouldn't go away. Williamson's blunt declaration that he was just writing fiction was met with a critic's point that since the Columbine shootings there's a consensus that "a percentage of our children are disconnected from emotion, are dangerous." And that TV entertainment might be part of the reason.
Williamson rightly suggested in reply that he actually deals with that issue in The Following. "It's meant to be a thriller with a provocative story at its root. But I understand the question," he says. "What happened in Columbine in a lot of ways inspired this, in a weird way. It's sort of shining a light on some of those kids or some of those minds … Joe Carroll is this magnetic character and he can sort of pinpoint what's missing in your life, what that little hole is and he can fill it. If you can find someone that can fill that void and that space in you, then you might be willing to follow them to a really dark place, and I think that's the terrain of the show."
Fox network chief Kevin Reilly, who has a lot riding on The Following – he needs a successful drama in his lineup – was also dismissive of accusations that the drama goes too far. "If you put this series through the filter of [the network's] Broadcast Standards [and Practices Department], there's nothing on that show we even had to fight over," Reilly said. "I didn't call the Standards and Practices Department and say, 'Buckle up, this one's pushing the boundaries.'"
Asked if the national revulsion after the Sandy Hook and Aurora shootings caused him to rethink future shows – Fox like other networks is going into pilot season – he said he couldn't be unaware, but rejected a direct connection between the shootings and the entertainment TV offers.
"You have to absorb everything," he asserted. "We're in the culture business. You are constantly monitoring cultural shifts, current events, shifts in mores, things that reflect society. That is, we both reflect society and, at times, we try to drive it. It comes with a responsibility. I don't like to trivialize an issue by drawing a direct linkage between anything, but we take everything we do, everything we put on the air, with the utmost responsibility."
And there's the issue in a nutshell. Reilly, like other network execs, rejects the passing of blame to the entertainment industry for the violence in the United States. At the same time, he has to be sensitive to shifts in the culture. He's putting a show in prime time about a character, Joe Carroll, whose philosophy is summarized as, "The only way to truly live is to kill."
At its core, the issue here is about fiction. James Purefoy isn't a killer. He plays one on TV in an intense drama that is a work of the imagination. When he embraces his 10-year-old fellow actor at a party, that's real. It's not fiction.
There's a difference, no matter how loud the noise is about The Following. No matter how much the NRA and its supporters want to shift the blame.
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