'The Following', whose third season has this week started on Fox, has gained its own cultish appreciation since debuting in the States in 2013. Supported by a slick, stylish handling of horror tropes, the heart of its huge appeal remains the opposing but very equal power of its two leads, Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy.
The show follows FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Bacon), determined to live out a peaceful retirement, following the capture of his most dangerous ever villain, professor turned serial killer and cult leader Joe Carroll (Purefoy).
Hardy's plans are undone, however, with Carroll's escape from maximum security. Professionally, Hardy must deal with a spate of gruesome murders, seemingly committed by Carroll's devoted followers, intent on emulating his methods and broadcasting his twisted messages to a fearful public.
But the battle between these two is far more personal than that. Not only is Carroll the man who stabbed Hardy in the heart leaving a scar and the need for a pacemaker. He's also intent on humiliating Hardy afresh and being reunited with his wife Claire (Natalie Zea), a woman with whom Hardy has what he thought was a secret history.
This could be standard cop and villain fare. What elevates it are the superior talents of these two actors, whose on-screen chemistry belies their polar opposite professional backgrounds.
Kevin Bacon needs no introduction, the Six Degrees game a testament to his labyrinthine career in Hollywood. After nearly four decades on the big screen, there is not a film that's not better off for Bacon's name on the credits - from the early days of 'Friday The 13th' and 'Footloose' to his mature turns in 'JFK' and 'Mystic River' - and it's the same here in his first foray into TV (not including a few early soap turns)., after he reportedly spent four years searching for a small screen role he could inhabit.
However, it's not his appeal as the wizened FBI agent that is surprising, instead it's his palpable, almost youthful commitment to what could have been a standard TV crime fighter type, giving him a vulnerability and a believable past that we viewers only get to know bit by bit.
When we first encounter him, Ryan Hardy is shut off from his former colleagues and the rest of the world, weighed down by his guilt for Carroll's victims that he had failed to save. Show creator Kevin Williamson revealed he envisaged Hardy as someone shaped in the mould of '24's Jack Bauer - "someone who carries the weight of every victim on his shoulders". It's a burden that Kevin Bacon embodies from the scar on his chest to the hunch in his shoulders, and we root for him to shake off his weariness and find the kind of peace that doesn't come with a whisky bottle.
If there was really a very small risk that Kevin Bacon would be anything other than appealing, the bigger surprise is urbane British actor James Purefoy as Carroll, thoroughly convincing in this most unsavoury of roles, as a former professor hanging on every word of Edgar Allan Poe and his belief in the "insanity of art", for his own extreme interpretations, i.e. the slaying of carefully selected female students.
RSC-trained Purefoy will be far more familiar for such classic roles as Mark Antony in epic series 'Rome', and Rawdon Crawley in 'Vanity Fair' opposite Reese Witherspoon. Costume drama has long been his bent, and the actor admitted on the show's debut he got quite unnerved conducting the necessary research for the role.
“I sat in a room in Santa Monica, 16 hours a day for a week, and just looked up every interview, every documentary, on every serial killer and cult leader," he said on the show's debut. "Not just your average one, because this character Joe Carroll is more monstrous. He has a cult following.
“You come out blinking into the Los Angeles sunshine after that week, somewhat dispirited with the human condition. And Joe is the most nihilistic character you could come across in his celebration of death.”
Despite this, Purefoy has mastered the ice-cold yet seductive humanity required of someone like Carroll if we are to believe that he could lull so many followers to fulfil his loathsome bidding.
Taken separately, these two characters are strong; matched in a battle of wills, they become exceptional, both operating without limits - Hardy's lack of professional constraint and personal control mirrored by Carroll's complete emptiness of conscience. Like all the best screen pairings, their characters are the stronger for being inspired by the other and, even when Carroll disappears off stage for much of Series 2, his threat remains, like a vapour on the air that only Hardy can sense.
'The Following' Series 1 and 2 are available for download and on DVD Box Set.