TV review: The Following - Watch out – here comes the splatter

The blood comes thick and fast in this gripping American drama about a clever serial killer

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The Independent Culture

Blood and gore are nothing new in the cinema. On television, there has been the occasional horror series – The X-Files, Buffy – but the fashion now is for subtler types of suspense: the spy thriller or psychological noir. So Sky Atlantic's new offering, The Following, at least has the merit of novelty.

Imported from America, it's a 10-part drama about a highly intelligent English lecturer turned serial killer, Joe Carroll, who from prison puppet-masters a cult of mini-mes. The idea is quite intelligent too. According to the FBI, there are 300 serial killers operating in America on any given day. The spine-chiller in this case is that, thanks to the internet, Carroll can orchestrate their activities into a simultaneous, nationwide bloodbath. This brilliantly bundles all of America's biggest fears into one – psychopaths, terrorists and the killer in our midst.

Episode one served as a neat prologue to what promises to be an unbearably watchable horror series. Kevin Bacon – yes, the A-list actor who normally makes movies – is our hero Ryan Hardy, a grizzled FBI agent brought out of retirement to track down Carroll, who has escaped from prison. By the end of the episode, a few bodies later, Carroll's back behind bars, but that's only the start: now begins his real killing spree, as he unleashes his tribe of brainwashed loonies to strike.

From the first minute, it's ketchup a-go-go. There isn't just one killer on the loose, remember, but all his disciples. It's like a zombie movie, where the characters you least expect to be baddies – the cops, the gay couple next door – suddenly swivel their eyes to become dead-eyed stabbers. I made the mistake of watching a trailer about the making of The Following beforehand; it showed the man with the bucket of red gloop and paintbrush going round the set trilling: "Here comes the spatter!" I'm sure I would have been much more frightened later without his words repeatedly popping into my head.

Even so, this is gripping stuff. The frantic pace means there's at least one maiming every five minutes. The script won't win the Man Booker, though the theme of the murders is semi-literary: Carroll is a devotee of Edgar Allan Poe. So after one killing, the legend "Nevermore" is daubed in blood on the wall. With another, Carroll had a stab at his victim a few years back, and comes back to finish her off, like Poe's unfinished novel. Or something.

Bacon is a class act, even if his character is fleshed out with the usual tropes of a flawed detective –swigs of vodka and an ill-advised romantic entanglement. And James Purefoy is well cast as the nutty professor, not so much because of his English accent (of course!) but because he looks quite like Fred West. The psychology of horror films is that the killer always dies in the end, so catharsis is achieved. With a 10-parter, that's not possible in each chunk, so it'll be interesting to see how The Following gets round it. What it does mean is that once you've watched episode one, you have to watch the whole lot, even if you really don't want to.

Which could never be said of Downton Abbey. I can honestly say I haven't had a single nightmare as a result of not watching the last series. Still, I couldn't resist ITV's latest shameless spin-off – Great Houses with Julian Fellowes (ITV1, Tuesday). The title rather says it all: our own Billy Bunter tooling round Britain's biggest piles "in search of the real Lord Grantham". They even use that blue and black split-screen Downton logo. But the comparisons fell away pretty quickly. Soon we were into a fully fledged history lesson from Professor Fellowes about the Cecils of Burghley House, who "rose to be first earls, and then marquises of Exeter". Just as well we're all up to speed on our squirearchy!

And there was none of that hand-holding with the storyline you get in Downton, no helpful lines from Bates telling us the First World War had just broken out. You had to pay attention, otherwise you began to wonder why Fellowes was chuntering on about the Earl of Oxford's thigh. I blame ITV for dressing this up as being somehow Downton related: it was actually a rather decent history documentary, more of a Who Do You Think Are? with ruffs. Anyone who tuned in hoping for some pantomime knockabout had to make do with the occasional one-liner from Widmerpool. "I'm no revolutionary," he beamed at one point, "but sometimes you do see their point." Well, he's no Maggie Smith. Maybe he should do it in drag.