January 18, 2013 at 05:00 AM EST

Writer-Producer Kevin Williamson played horror for giggles in Scream, but the horrors of a serial killer get the grim treatment on The Following, a drama that makes the most of gaunt-faced star Kevin Bacon. The actor is ripe for a television series: He’s in his mid-50s, and he’s got the trim, wiry body of someone at least a decade younger; he’s become the Iggy Pop of soulful acting.

As former FBI agent Ryan Hardy, Bacon plays a man whose life was pretty much ruined by his successful pursuit of Joe Carroll, James Purefoy’s charismatic killer. At the start of the show, Hardy is a lonely wraith who subsists on vodka and regret, but when Carroll escapes he’s pulled back into FBI action and forced to confront his nemesis again. Even once Carroll is safely back in prison, he is so persuasive that he all but sends out zapping brain-commands to zealous fans — the cult referenced in the title — who commit crimes as acts of devotion to their idol.

The weakest part of The Following is the idea that Carroll was a college professor who held his classes spellbound with lectures about Thoreau, Emerson, and, most crucially, Edgar Allan Poe. His disciples leave Poe-related clues at the scenes of their crimes, such as scrawling the word nevermore in blood on a wall, so that Hardy can yell triumphantly, ”’The Raven’!” But the flashbacks to Carroll’s classroom talks barely rise to high-school-level discourse; the show makes it seem as though no one had ever heard of ”The Tell-Tale Heart” or ”The Black Cat.”

The drama’s strongest elements override this flaw. Both Bacon and Purefoy are so intensely earnest, The Following quickly supersedes its patent Silence of the Lambs setup. The moments that focus on Carroll’s criminal cult give the series its real power, and the modern-day variations on Charlie Manson’s kill-crazy crew are genuinely spooky. Williamson recently told EW that one of his favorite TV shows is 24, and a plot revolving around Carroll’s family has a similar ticktock timed-suspense aspect. But Bacon’s Hardy is no Jack Bauer; he’s an aspiring alcoholic with a pacemaker — a telltale heart-warmer of a guy who tries to come off as cold and aloof. He doesn’t fool us for a moment, though, and that’s why we end up caring about this screwed-up hero and his mission to keep us safe from, and interested in, what would otherwise be merely the umpteenth serial killer in pop culture. B+

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