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If the horrific violence at Sandy Hook Elementary has prompted some soul-searching in the entertainment industry, it is not likely to affect what viewers will see on their television screens, especially on broadcast television, which is governed by FCC-imposed standards. Kevin Williamson — the veteran showrunner whose Fox thriller The Following bows Jan. 21 – admitted that the Dec. 14 massacre at the Newtown, Conn., school that left 20 children dead certainly impacted him personally.
“Who wasn’t affected by Sandy Hook? I’m still disturbed by Aurora,” he said, referring to the July shooting at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. But at Fox’s first session at the Television Critics Association press tour Tuesday, Williamson pointed out that he’s “writing fiction.”
“I think we all worry about it,” he continued. “We sat in the writers’ room and we were all affected by it. [The violence] reaches a moment where it just gets too real. It’s very disturbing. But I’m writing fiction.”
Williamson said network executives did not ask him to reduce the body count on The Following in the wake of Sandy Hook, and he added that there was never any talk of delaying the premiere to allow any raw nerves to cauterize.
“No one brought that to me,” Williamson said. “I’m sure there were a lot of conversations [at the network], just as there were in every household in the country about Sandy Hook. It’s horrible.”
The Following is an intensely gory drama about a Manson-esque serial killer (played by James Purefoy) who recruits an army of killers to do his bidding while he sits in jail. Kevin Bacon – in his first regular TV series role – plays the damaged FBI agent charged with stopping the murderous cult. The series, which will air at 9 p.m. on Fox, pushes the boundaries of violence and sexual content (there’s a three-way sexual encounter in a later episode).
“There are some moments that are squeamish,” said Williamson. “But it’s not like there’s no emotion to it.”
Anthony Hopkins’ cannibalistic Hannibal Lecter was among Williamson’s many templates for Purefoy’s seductive serial killer, Joe Carroll. But Purefoy, who like Hopkins hails from England, questioned whether Lecter was a proper role model. “I’m [disappointed by] how little Hannibal’s vision is. He can only see up to the next meal,” said Purefoy to laughs from gathered reporters. (The loudest cheers came when a reporter said she would like to see Bacon and Purefoy kiss, and Bacon obliged, taking Purefoy’s head in his hands and planting one on his lips.)
Williamson noted that real-life monsters — including Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, as well as Danny Rolling, who came to be known as The Gainesville Ripper after he murdered five students in Gainesville, Fla., during a 1990 killing spree — also inspired him.
Bacon, who had been looking for a TV role for “three or four years” said he was drawn to the show’s pacing and the role’s emotional resonance, not necessarily the violence. He had been reading dozens of TV scripts, he said. And The Following script “was such a page-turner, and I thought it was just such an interesting character.”
Bacon’s Ryan Hardy struggles with addiction and job-related PTSD while also having an affair with the killer’s wife (played by Justified co-star Natalie Zea). “Given the fast pace and the heart-pounding nature [of the series], it still had a lot of heart and the sentimentality.”
Fox has a lot riding on The Following. Mob Doctor, the network’s single new fall drama, did not find an audience and will go off the air. House has wrapped, and Fringe is nearing its series finale. Sophomore series Touch and Bones are the network’s only returning dramas. But The Following is also a risk: it is the kind of dark drama that can at times have difficulty finding an audience. It’s also heavily serialized, another barrier for viewers bombarded by myriad entertainment choices. Asked if The Following would follow an American Horror Story template and take an anthology approach by killing off many main characters, Williamson did not rule it out.
“Anything is possible, but I will say because of The Vampire Diaries, I’ve seen how you benefit from really killing people at the right time. [Bacon] would of course return. He’s Kevin Bacon; I’m not going to let him go. We do bring in different characters and different killers and different colleagues for him to work with. I don’t know where we’re taking it in season two and three with regard to who lives and who dies, but definitely people will live and die.”
Email: Marisa.Guthrie@thr.com; Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie
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