Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy are back as television's grisliest odd couple — and we can hardly mask our excitement. "It gets a little more demented," promises executive producer Kevin Williamson of The Following's unsettling second act for Bacon's former FBI agent Ryan Hardy and the erudite literature professor—turned—cult leader Joe Carroll, played with cheeky relish by Purefoy. Just don't expect The Following to hew to the same cops-and-psychos course it ran during its first season. It's still a scare-fest that excels at getting under your skin, but "we're changing the feel and the texture of the show," Williamson says. "We want to make sure that you're not watching the same old thing." (The second season premieres Sunday, Jan. 19 after the NFC Championship game on Fox, then moves to its regular timeslot, Mondays at 9/8c, on Jan. 27.)
Picking up one year after April's finale, Season 2 finds the hard-drinking Hardy recovering from both booze and the final-seconds ambush by one of Carroll's crazed acolytes (Natalie Zea's Claire, unfortunately, hasn't fared as well). Given that Purefoy's return was announced at the show's panel during last summer's San Diego Comic-Con, it's no spoiler to announce that Carroll did not perish in that lighthouse explosion. What he's been up to, however, is almost as shocking as his fondness for removing his victims' eyes.
"He's done nothing in a year!" exclaims Purefoy of the inactive maniac, who makes his first reappearance in the most unlikely fashion — and location. "[Carroll] realized that he needed to hide out, so he didn't get in touch with anybody." Not even Emma (Valorie Curry) — the bed-hopping follower we love to hate — or any of the remaining members of his "family," who are now hiding out in communal anonymity in New Jersey. "They all think he's dead."
Except for our hero, that is. Even though he's now five months sober, living in New York and teaching a course on criminology at New York College of Criminal Justice, Hardy — who actually gets to smile this year — hasn't exorcised all his demons. "There are layers to it, because it seems that he has [moved on from this case]," explains Bacon, kicking back in his trailer outside the show's Brooklyn soundstages. "He seems to be healthier and more together in the head, yet this dark obsession is really still there."
Cue the season opener's New York subway attack by a band of knife-wielding maniacs in Carroll masks. One frantic call from the Feds to help consult on the case and Hardy is back in action and hot to prove that Carroll is still alive. Only this time, he's more about vigilante justice, which should satisfy fans irked by last season's federal fumbles.
"We kept getting into a place where the FBI couldn't win, so they came across as dumb," says executive producer Marcos Siega, adding that "this season, we have references to things that happened so viewers will understand why that was. It all starts to make sense." The producers have also taken steps to expand the psychological breadth of the story by slowing down the ticking-clock pace just slightly. "We're showing more of the characters and spending more time investing in them," Siega says. "Everything last season was so urgent."
Both Bacon and Purefoy are thrilled with the show's new direction. With Carroll no longer fixated on Edgar Allan Poe and his own literary delusions, Purefoy is loving his alter ego's unbridled insanity. "Carroll is much more dangerous and is enjoying himself more," he says. "There's a twinkle in his eye now." That glint should only get shinier once the madman ends his self-imposed exile and apparently embraces his messianic side. "He is still Joe Carroll and crazy, but he realizes that he was just a copycat, a plagiarist," hints Williamson. "He was ripping off Poe left and right, and in a really bad way, so this time, he moves on to a better writer. He goes to the greatest story ever told."
For Bacon, the fun has been in balancing The Following's often violent action with deeper emotional arcs, including the introduction of Hardy's niece Max (90210's Jessica Stroup). "That was one thing we talked about," he says of his chats with Williamson after Fox renewed the series. "We discussed the idea of bringing on someone in the family, which is good because [Hardy] is someone who has cut himself off. His sister [Jenny, played by Susan Misner] was in one episode last year and then took off for Florida, so it's nice to have a character that ups the stakes emotionally."
Max is an up-and-coming NYPD detective, and Hardy needs someone on the inside to feed him information on Carroll and the new batch of killers now that things aren't exactly awesome with his former partner Mike Weston (Shawn Ashmore). Once a boyish, eager cheerleader for Hardy, Weston has taken on shades of his tarnished idol's old self, complete with daytime drinking and a bitter resentment about what the Carroll case has cost them both.
Besides the trauma of finding their colleague Parker (Annie Parisse) buried alive, Hardy "shot a handcuffed man in the head and Mike covered it up," Bacon says. "I don't know if they will ever get back to where they were."
For more on The Following, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on sale Thursday, Jan. 16.