FOX’s new midseason thriller The Following, starring Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy, premieres Jan. 21 at 9pm ET/PT. Bacon plays a former FBI agent called out retirement to track down the serial killer he once put away, who has escaped and recruited a cult of murderous followers.
Befitting its dark premise, The Following depicts some dark acts, from eye-stabbings to burnings. In our current climate where the national conversation has been turned toward looking at ways to prevent tragedies of the sort that occurred last month in Newtown, Conn., some people have suggested that television and movie violence may play a role. Along those lines, throughout this TCA tour, questions have been asked of various executives and creative personnel about the role they may have in this conversation, and the questions arose again today at two panels during the FOX sessions: one during the panel for The Following itself, with the cast and creator/executive producer Kevin Williamson, and later, at the FOX executive session, with FOX chairman of entertainment Kevin Reilly.
As with any conversation about a controversial subject, this discussion sometimes came in fits and starts, and even the questioners (the TV critics) where not in complete agreement, as comments flying on Twitter showed. Some thought the show depicted acts of violence too intense for broadcast, and certainly too intense for its early broadcast hour (9pm ET). Some were disappointed that Kevin Williamson did not come better prepared to talk about the violence in his show, while others thought it silly to even discuss the topic, and suggested they would be complaining if the show was not violent enough. While nothing was definitively settled, of course, it made for some lively discussion.
For Kevin Williamson’s part, he says, “There’s some, yeah, definitely there’s some moments it’s squeamish and it’s not for the faint of heart. You have to kind of look away. But it’s not the sum of the show. There’s also drama and emotion and a lot of other things running through it. … I take it episode by episode. You know, every episode’s different. Like some episodes, I find, oh, wow, like, a lot of people died this week. Okay. So then when I sit down to write, no one dies the next week. The show takes shape. It takes shape as you write it.”
When asked a question about whether the events at Sandy Hook caused the network to talk to him about the level of violence in The Following, and whether the cumulative impact of violence is something that Hollywood creators should consider at all, Williamson said, “Well, I think we all worry about it. I mean, who wasn’t affected by Sandy Hook, or the one that I’m still disturbed when I think of, Aurora. And we sit in the writers’ room after that happened and we just sort of, like we’re all traumatized by it. It reaches a moment where that just gets too real, and it’s very disturbing. But I think that’s one of the reasons it still affects me, because it’s just so real. I’m writing fiction. I’m just a storyteller. And you think there’s this cumulative effect. I don’t know. I know it affected me. I know what happens in the real world affects me. So when I take pen to paper, there is a reaction to it and it sort of find its way into what I do.”
Later in the day, at the FOX executive session with Kevin Reilly — who seemed to have perhaps thought about this topic a bit more in the broader cultural perspective — was asked whether events such as the Aurora and Newtown shootings have caused an impact on his decision-making process going into the pilot season.
“You have to absorb everything,” said Reilly. “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 know there was some talk about that earlier. 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. I have a lot of sleepless nights. Not only am I trying to get hits, but we’re trying to, as we have since the early days of television and Elvis on Ed Sullivan, you’re trying to find that line. Current events, tragedy are all part of it. I think you can’t be reactionary and you can’t draw a direct linkage, but all of the above is on your mind when you’re making these decisions.”
Speaking directly about The Following and whether it pushes the bounds of broadcast standards, Reilly offered, “We haven’t pushed broadcast standards. I think that the show is intense because of the psychological nature of it, and the characters in whom we invest. … My personal opinion is that we have Puritan roots in this country, and as a nation, we are a lot more tolerant, strangely, of issues of violence than we are of sexuality. If you look in Europe, you see not only — if you look at the broader programming and entertainment around the world — it’s, in many ways, more violent and more provocative, both in content of sexuality and in violence. It is a part of human nature. Our job is to be responsible with it and make it a balanced plate. Again, I’m not defensive about it, but I’m putting on an excellent thriller police story, a story of a cop chasing a bad guy. I’m not glorifying killers [with The Following].”
And as to concerns that some have about the level of violence on television overall that they believe to be excessive, Reilly said, “Well, first of all, I run a broadcast network which is still an enormous platform. It is now a part of a much larger tapestry and a very complex media landscape where there is access 24 hours a day at your fingertips on the Web and on cable news, as well as all of the other entertainment and media choices, from gaming to television, etc. So it’s a much more complex conversation. I think it trivializes it to try and link it to television, or broadcast television, in particular. … As a parent, as a participant in society, I worry about the safety of my family. Of course, these things are on my mind, but we are a piece. The conversation is a complex one and a broad one. And I think the dialogue is important and should happen, and it has to happen in the broadest possible ways.”
Responding to a later question about the desire for content such as that found in The Following, and to the ultimate responsibility of networks like FOX, Reilly said, “Well, clearly there’s an appetite, okay? Let’s just say that for a fact. We can look at the success not only on television, but in the box office. And in all aspects of entertainment and media, there’s clearly an appetite. People like these things, okay? So that is the business that we’re in, of providing things that people like.
“As far as the responsibility, I’ll only speak to our network. We’re happy to engage and be a part of any dialogue and any study or discussion that can further a constructive dialogue. But it is a broader societal conversation and dialogue. Unfortunately, in complex matters, we all like a scapegoat. We all like a simple answer. We want to put the finger on one thing and say, ‘That’s the problem. That’s the issue.’ And, look, we’re just in the age of complex issues. There is no simple thing. I think that’s what we see in the elections. It’s why there’s this polarization. Everybody wants to dig in on an issue, and this is one of them.”
And it’s likely to be an issue talked about in our national conversation for many years and at many TCAs to come, whether it’s regarding future seasons of The Following, or series like it.
Photos: © 2012 Fox Broadcasting Co. Credit: FOX