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Television Review

‘The Following’ is dark but not so deep

James Purefoy plays a jailed serial killer who has a cult that carries out his violent wishes outside in Fox’s “The Following.’’

Fox Broadcasting Co.

James Purefoy plays a jailed serial killer who has a cult that carries out his violent wishes outside in Fox’s “The Following.’’

‘The Silence of the Lambs” continues to have a following among TV producers. This dark, fast-moving new Fox series, “The Following,” could easily be named after them.

Serial-killing-obsessed series such as “CSI” and “Criminal Minds” still borrow from that landmark 1991 movie, which was a rapt study of Hannibal Lecter’s obsessions, his logic, his amorality, and his charisma. A series directly based on novelist Thomas Harris’s character, “Hannibal,” is coming to NBC in the spring or summer.

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“The Following,” which premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on Channel 25, is producer Kevin Williamson’s take on Hannibal and Clarice type characters. British actor James Purefoy is the jailed serial killer, who has the self-satisfied smirk of Anthony Hopkins’s Lecter, and Kevin Bacon plays his tormented nemesis, a former FBI agent who, like Jodie Foster’s Clarice, is under the killer’s spell. Along with “Dawson’s Creek” and “The Vampire Diaries,” Williamson has given us the witty horror of the “Scream” franchise. But “The Following” is a pitch-black — and intensely violent — serial that jumps among severed bodies and Bacon’s grim face.

The story: Purefoy’s Joe Carroll, a former literature professor, is in jail for the murders of 14 women, which he committed out of worship for Edgar Allan Poe. He’s part of a following, too, it seems. He escapes prison in the premiere, but he is quickly returned to his cell. However, he has masterminded a cult of creeps who carry out his violent wishes in the outside world, leaving Poe clues at their murder scenes. They are his following. Bacon’s Hardy is the guy who caught Carroll years ago, and his fixation on Carroll and his crimes has left him a broken man who fills his water bottle with vodka. He gets pulled back into FBI work when Carroll escapes.

Obviously, this is not a show for people who can’t tolerate depictions of violence. “The Following” doesn’t have the humor of “CSI,” nor does it have the team spirit of “Criminal Minds.” It’s unmitigated gruesomeness. And it’s going to offend those who believe that such shows engender real-world violence in America. As the finger-pointing continues about what or who is to blame for the likes of the Newtown massacre, “The Following” will be a case in point for many.

I had hoped “The Following” would be a more self-aware about its own violence, given that it is about the idea of casting influence. Carroll has been influenced by Poe; Carroll’s cult of crazies is being influenced by him. Is violence catchy? Why are these people at Carroll’s beck and call in the first place? The show never addresses that point. Williamson and his writers miss a great opportunity to bring in questions about whether violence on TV and in movies can influence viewers. The title also could have been a reference to the show’s audience.

Instead, “The Following” simply goes for more generic thrills, using a lot of horror-story clichés including making the most virulent followers into boys and girls next door. It’s a well put together show, so that the four episodes sent for preview flew by. But it doesn’t invite bigger thoughts, which is what violent cable series such as “Dexter” and “Boardwalk Empire” have done at their best. It just grabs us with an arsenal of bloody, familiar tricks, including the stabbing of hands, a woman stabbing herself in the eye, and a man on fire.

The cast is good, although not as good as I had expected given the talent involved. Purefoy was memorable on “Rome” and in a number of movies, including “Vanity Fair”; here, he is the familiar too-brilliant serial killer who makes it onto every crime series at some point. Given that his Carroll is a Charles Manson-like figure, I wish he’d been more twisted. Flashbacks to his lectures about Poe aren’t electric enough to explain his magnetism over his followers. Bacon is sufficiently weary, but that’s about it. He doesn’t bring much range. And Natalie Zea, from “Justified” and “Dirty Sexy Money,” is a welcome addition as Carroll’s ex-wife, and Hardy’s ex-lover, although her character is stubbornly one-dimensional.

The first few episodes include a “24”-like plot that involves the search for a missing child. Like so much about “The Following,” it’s not boring, even though you’ve seen it many times before. It’s compelling TV that doesn’t want you to think along the way.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Matthew
Gilbert
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