ShawConnect TV critic Brent Furdyk samples the upcoming pilots for a first look at the new midseason series

Starring: Kevin Bacon, James Purefoy, Natalie Zea, Annie Parisse, Shawn Ashmore, Valorie Curry, Adan Canto, Nico Tortorella, Kyle Catlett

The gist: Imprisoned serial killer Joe Carroll (Rome’s Purefoy) escapes from death row and resumes the killing spree that ended years earlier when dogged FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Bacon) captured him, albeit at great personal cost. With Carroll on the loose and the body count growing, the FBI enlists the help of the now-retired Hardy, who’s become a boozing, bitter recluse after nearly losing his life in the process of apprehending Carroll.

Despite pissing off the FBI with the subsequent book he wrote about the Carroll case, the feds need his expertise; that’s because he’s the only person who ever managed to get inside the twisted mind of Carroll, a brilliant university professor whose twisted obsession with Edgar Allan Poe caused him to murder 14 female college students back in 2003.

I’ll try to sidestep any spoilers, but suffice it to say that Hardy and the rest of the FBI team (including Ashmore and Parisse) soon discover they’re not just hunting Carroll, but also his disciples. As it turns out, during Carroll’s incarceration he was in contact with devotees throughout the U.S., all of whom have pledged to do his murderous bidding in service of an evil master plan. With no knowledge of how many of Carroll’s maniacal minions are out there, or when and where they’ll strike, Hardy and the FBI take on the grisly task of battling Carroll’s viral killing spree as his followers attempt to complete his “masterpiece.”

It’s like… Silence of the Lambs meets Criminal Minds

Sample line: “He didn’t just kill 14 female students — he was making art. ”

IMHO: There are some genuinely creepy moments, especially one scene in which one of Carroll’s demented followers makes the ultimate sacrifice, and Bacon conveys his horror with little more than a look. In fact, if I were to complain about anything, it’s that Bacon’s performance is perhaps a bit too intense and cinematic for B-movie material, although there’s no denying he brings the same kind of gravitas to the role that Kiefer Sutherland brought to 24.

Purefoy, on the other hand, knows exactly what kind of show he’s in, and plays Carroll as a smirking, manipulative monster, sort of a Hannibal Lector Lite. Complicating matters is Carroll’s ex-wife (Justified’s Zea), who had a thing with Hardy during his investigation a decade earlier. On one hand, this subplot seems  bit on the improbable side (really, the lead investigator on a serial-killer case is going to sleep with the prime suspect’s wife?), but at least it gives Bacon a love interest in the midst of all the homicidal mayhem.

Fun Fact: The series bears the imprimatur of Scream-meister Kevin Williamson, who has a pretty solid track record when it comes to both scaring and surprising viewers.

Verdict: The show will presumably have Bacon and Co. attempt to apprehend a different one of Carroll’s followers each week, and this procedural element should allow casual viewers to pop in and out. Meanwhile, the long-term “mythology” aspect of the ongoing storyline will also appeal to fans of serialized dramas. Win-win.

Prediction: Judging by the gripping pilot, The Following promises to be a case of the right guy in the right show at the right time, although the dark subject matter may be better suited for cable than network television. Still, all the elements are in place for what could be midseason’s biggest breakout hit — I can’t wait to read all those “Bacon sizzles” headlines.

THE FOLLOWING premieres Monday, January 21 on CTV & Fox