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Fox defends violence on serial-killer thriller ‘The Following’

THE FOLLOWING: Joe Carroll (James Purefoy R) gets too close his ex-wife Claire Matthews (Natalie ZeL)  'Chapter Two' episode

THE FOLLOWING: Joe Carroll (James Purefoy, R) gets too close to his ex-wife, Claire Matthews (Natalie Zea, L), in the "Chapter Two" episode of THE FOLLOWING airing Monday, Jan. 28 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2012 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: David Giesbrecht/FOX

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Updated: February 22, 2013 6:08AM

PASADENA, Calif. — It’s ironic that a show about a serial killer is itself a victim — of bad timing.

Fox’s blood-soaked thriller “The Following” debuts Monday, a little over a month after the shooting spree that left 27 dead in Newtown, Conn. The tragedy reignited a national debate, prompting President Barack Obama to create a task force to come up with proposals on gun control, mental health issues and “a culture that all too often glorifies guns and violence.”

Television is a key part of that culture, and shows with high body counts and lots of gore are finding themselves under increased scrutiny.

Violence on the small screen was a hot topic at TV critics’ recent press tour. Network executives were grilled about the degree to which events such as those in Newtown and Aurora, Colo., have influenced their programming choices and whether a cause-and-effect argument can be made between violence on TV and in the real world. Not surprisingly “The Following,” with its homicidal tendencies and brutal content — certainly by broadcast standards — evolved into a poster child of sorts.

“I look at the violence in our show, and I think there’s some shocking moments where we do push the button and you could call it gratuitous; I would never argue someone’s subjective opinion of that,” said the show’s creator, Kevin Williamson, whose credits include “The Vampire Diaries,” “Dawson’s Creek” and the “Scream” franchise. “But I’m trying to scare an audience and make a statement and be provocative about this character. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea.”

“The Following” is a cat-and-mouse thriller that pits a former FBI agent against a serial killer with a rabid fan base. The killer’s followers are happy to do his bidding while he’s behind bars.

Kevin Bacon makes his primetime series debut as Ryan Hardy, who gets called back to action when serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy, “Rome”) escapes from prison.

Carroll landed on death row after being convicted of slaughtering 14 co-eds at the Virginia college where he taught literature. The charismatic professor worships 19th century poet and author Edgar Allan Poe, the murder-inciting muse of Carroll and his disciples. In one of the pilot’s particularly graphic scenes, a Carroll follower whose flesh is covered in Poe quotes fatally stabs herself in the eye with an ice pick after uttering Poe’s words, “Lord help my poor soul.”

“There’s some moments it’s squeamish and it’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s not the sum of the show,” said Williamson, 47, who set out to make a “thrill ride” in the mold of his favorite TV show, Fox’s suspenser “24.”

“The Following” is nothing if not intense, with a fast-moving plot punctuated by the occasional cheap scare. The story isn’t brilliant or all that sophisticated, but the scripts are stocked with enough clever twists and turns to keep you guessing.

“Surprises are the thing that drives this show,” Bacon said. “But those surprises are not necessarily the surprises that come from big plot twists. They’re also the surprises of: Who are these characters? What’s really driving Ryan Hardy?”

The serialized nature of its 15-episode season — seven shorter than a typical broadcast series — is a welcome departure from case-of-the-week procedurals like CBS’ “Criminal Minds” (a show Mandy Patinkin reportedly quit because its relentless violence “was destructive to my soul”).

While some viewers will tune in to “The Following” because of the horror aspect (others, despite it), the real reason to watch is to see Bacon and Purefoy square off.

Both actors shine as arch-enemies who are obsessed with one another, almost in a romantic way. When that last point was raised during “The Following” panel at the critics’ press tour, Bacon gamely leaned over and planted a kiss on his co-star.

Fox Entertainment Chief Kevin Reilly wasn’t in as playful a mood. Reilly didn’t hide his exasperation with reporters who continued to press him on the issue of TV violence after the “Following” panel, where he defended the show’s sometimes unsettling imagery.

“If you actually put it through the filter of broadcast standards of what we say is allowable or not, there is nothing in that show that we’ve even had to fight over,” Reilly said. (The FCC and broadcast’s Standards and Practices departments are notoriously looser with the reins when it comes to censoring violence as opposed to language and sex.)

Reilly acknowledged feeling the heat of increased competition from cable TV, where some of the most popular shows have upped the violence ante. The creepy cast of characters on FX’s “American Horror Story: Asylum” includes a serial killer named Bloody Face. “Sons of Anarchy” started this season by dousing a woman with gasoline and letting her burn to death in front of her father’s eyes. (“The Following” also can check immolation off its Bingo card.) AMC’s “The Walking Dead” — an excellent show, mind you — spends a fair bit of time playing Whac-A-Mole with zombies’ heads.

These facts aren’t lost on broadcast bigwigs.

“The top drama on television last year was ‘Walking Dead,’ ” Reilly said. “That doesn’t mean every show we put on should start chasing the standards of cable …but we must match the intensity. Otherwise we’re going to be a pale comparison and we’re not going to entertain the audience.”

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