PASADENA — From the moment he read the first script for the "The Following," Kevin Bacon knew audiences would love the show.
As he pored over the pages for the FOX series, Bacon — who has seen a lot of scripts in his career — was surprised by all of the twists and turns. He was confident viewers would be drawn to the interesting, complex characters living through — or dying in — shocking moments.
He was right. The first season of "The Following" was such a hit that FOX ordered a second season, which begins to unfold tonight with a special preview following the NFC Championship game. The new season cranks up Jan. 27.
"The fact that people found it and embraced it, and the excitement that I feel and the connection that I feel to the fans of this show, is probably deeper than anything I've experienced in my career. So that is something that we all are eternally grateful for," Bacon says.
What captivates people is the story of burned-out former FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Bacon). The near-fatal injuries he sustained while tracking down a serial killer — cult favorite Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) — sent Hardy to the sidelines. He was coaxed back to work when Carroll escaped from prison. The first season chase ended with an explosion that initially looked as if it had killed Carroll.
No great villain can be dismissed that easily. Carroll's back, bringing Hardy more pain and misery.
One thing that made the first season so compelling was the fear it generated through plot twists. A pixie-like nanny turns out to be one of Carroll's biggest supporters. Characters who looked like they would be around for a long time got killed. And, it was impossible to guess the loyalties of those who didn't die.
All you have to do is watch the first two minutes of the second-season opener to realize that even sacred cows go to slaughter.
Series creator Kevin Williamson explains that he doesn't put violence in the series — it will run for 15 episodes — just for the shock value. There has to be a good reason for taking any type of violent action.
"We sort of write to the story and what the story calls for and what the shocking moments are. And, you know, I don't run away. I don't shy away from violence. But also I never ever just want it to be gore for the sake of gore," Williamson says. "It's always been to sort of shock and sort of push the story forward and make you gasp and also make you truly be afraid and truly be scared of these characters and the situation."
Those situations tend to pop up as the guardians of good and evil wage their mental, physical and emotional battles. Neither Hardy nor Carroll hesitate when it comes to getting what they want.
This season, what Hardy needs is a little extra motivation to resume his battle against Carroll and his crazed cult followers. Hardy lost his obsession with Carroll when he believed the killer to be dead. On the one-year anniversary of the believed death, Hardy is given reason to resume his battle. In a contrast to the first season, Hardy is now clean and sober.
Williamson stresses that the show is about Hardy's journey and his struggle to find some hope in life, to find some reason to live. He has a death curse that hangs over him like a dark cloud.
One thing that remains the same is Carroll's fanatical followers.
"Psychopaths are willing to step outside the normal bounds of human behavior, and I think people find that really interesting and people fantasize about that themselves. Most people don't carry it out, but they think, wow, that's amazing that these people can live with no sense of empathy for somebody else or no sense of an idea of a consequence to any of their actions," Purefoy says.
If this season goes the same as the first, there will be more successes by Carroll than Hardy. The fact that the killer was able to so easily manipulate the FBI during the first year earned some criticism. Williamson explains it's the nature of the writing that law enforcement needed to be slightly inept in the early episodes to keep the show going.
"When you look back, you're like, oh, man the FBI's really stupid. There really was some justified criticism and I'll swallow it and take it and will learn from it and grow. That's some of the growing pains of a first-year show, I felt," Williamson says. "One of the things we did this year just to solve that issue, because the writers' room took it very seriously, is we took him out of the FBI and it's more of a character. … We've taken Ryan Hardy to a brand new world. He's in a brand new starting place. We're in New York City. We have a brand new template to paint from, to paint on."
With the changes, "The Following" looks to scare and entertain by always keeping the audience guessing. Bacon's vowed to make sure that part doesn't change: "I feel a lot of responsibility for the show, for it to be good and for people to embrace it and for week after week for it to remain viable and on the air."
"The Following": Special preview tonight after NFC championship game Sunday, then 9 p.m. Mondays, FOX (KMPH, Channel 26.1)
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.