Last week, I voiced my disappointment in Kevin Bacon's TV debut The Following - a show that I'd expected to be something a bit special, but which in the event turned out to be disappointingly run-of-the-mill, despite its high-calibre cast. The drama's second episode 'Chapter Two' doesn't solve all of the pilot's problems, but it is a marked improvement on what came before.
We pick up where the series premiere left off - it's revealed that diabolical eye-gouger Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) has an unknown number of murderous accomplices who've been living under deep cover for years. In short, anyone and everyone in The Following could be in Carroll's thrall, which will doubtless lead to countless twists and much suspicious finger-pointing in the coming weeks...
The FBI launches a two-pronged manhunt for Carroll's son Joey - who's been snatched from his mother's care by demented babysitter Emma (Valorie Curry) - and on-the-loose cop turned killer Jordy Raines (Steve Monroe) who's committing a string of gruesome murders in grisly tribute to mentor Carroll.
Lest we forget, our lead Ryan Hardy (Bacon) is a maverick, ready to snap, on the edge, yadda yadda yadda, so with the hunt ongoing, he's assigned a new babysitter - Annie Parisse's cult expert Agent Debra Parker.
Parker's used a little too often as an expository tool, but Parisse is engaging and her character makes for a calmer counterpart to Kevin Bacon's persistently on-edge lead. It's also a genuine surprise when she's apparently outed as a Carroll plant at episode's end - we'd fingered techno whiz Agent Mitchell (Chinasa Ogbuagu) as the most likely mole given her suspiciously low-key introduction.
When their hunt for Emma and her killer buds hits a wall, the Feds rather quickly and rashly agree to let James Purefoy's swarthy psychopath speak to his wife Claire (Natalie Zea). It's maybe not the smartest move on their part, but it does mean that The Following wisely puts Purefoy front and centre within the episode's first ten minutes - the show is always at its best when Carroll's on-screen, scowling and smirking away in sinister fashion.
Carroll being confined to prison doesn't limit Purefoy's screen-time either, as a series of flashbacks depict how he turned acolyte Emma to the dark side. Presumably we'll see more scenes of this sort each week, with the charming Carroll grooming more and more followers for his own ends.
The true extent of Carroll's influence and his true agenda remains a mystery though - The Following introduces another horror trope this week as one of the mastermind's followers dons a creepy, blank-faced mask to target innocent victims, but the shrouded killer spares Ryan's life after catching our hero dead to rights - clearly Carroll has a bigger plan for his nemesis that's yet to unfold. As Ryan himself asks, "What's the endgame?"
Yes, in the aftermath of Claire's close brush with death at the hands of sweaty Jordy, Hardy is - rather unfeasibly - allowed to interrogate Carroll for a second time, despite breaking three of his fingers last week, and is warned that his foe has "so many surprises" still in store. But we also get a glimpse at another side of Joe - the first crack in his smooth veneer - when he learns that his plot to manipulate Jordy did not go according to plan...
It's clear that the weekly face-offs between Bacon and Purefoy will be the highlight of each Following episode, but when you stop to think about it, Hardy's active participation on the Carroll case doesn't make a great deal of sense - if he's central to Carroll's plot, then keep him locked up at FBI HQ instead of letting a damaged agent with a bad heart run around chasing dangerous criminals.
As we established last week, The Following is not the most credible show on television, but 'Chapter Two' is thankfully nowhere near as hackneyed as the show's pilot episode. There's none of Ryan's barely-concealed vodka swilling, few of his angry wild-eyed outbursts and while he makes a few ill-judged decisions, even his maverick rule-breaking is kept to a minimum.
The show's harsher critics will also probably be pleased to hear that much of last week's graphic gruesomeness has been toned down, though personally this writer missed the visceral shocks that made parts of the series premiere so memorable.
The Following is getting there, but is still badly lacking living, breathing characters. We spend plenty of time exploring the history of Carroll's killers, but our heroes - the likes of Shawn Ashmore's plucky FBI agent Mike Weston - get short shrift, existing only to service the plot.
You get the feeling that this show badly wants to be a credible drama - the next Homeland or Breaking Bad - but so far it more closely resembles an extended episode of Criminal Minds, and like that series, it's a solid if unspectacular splatterfest.
The Following continues on Tuesdays at 10pm on Sky Atlantic.