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Review: New CBS drama 'Stalker' is terrible, exploitative

Dylan McDermott, who plays a weasly detective, and Maggie Q, who seriously deserves better material.
Dylan McDermott, who plays a weasly detective, and Maggie Q, who seriously deserves better material.
Published Sep. 29, 2014

Stalker is the kind of insipid show in which Dylan McDermott's homicide detective Jack Larsen not so ironically says things like, "Why do you wear sexy things if you don't want men to notice?" to his female partner.

It's also the kind of show that thinks it's appropriate to open its pilot episode, airing Wednesday, with gruesome violence against a young woman, showing her being attacked and trapped in a car that's set on fire.

CBS' deplorable new thriller was created by Kevin Williamson, who wrote the Scream movies and currently has another show airing on Fox, the gross and graphic Kevin Bacon serial killer drama The Following.

Less a critique of horror tropes and more a showcase for the most despicable ones, Stalker is much closer to The Following than Williamson's cheeky, satire-laden Scream franchise. It's a wholly unpleasant way to spend an hour.

The most glaring — and offensive — problem with Stalker is that, for a show about the dangers of voyeurism, it's exploitative to a fault, especially when it comes to women.

The show follows Lt. Beth Davis, played by Maggie Q (totally solid and in need of stronger material), and McDermott, who after starring in CBS' dumb, now-canceled Hostages probably deserves the slimy character he gets. They're partnered in the Los Angeles Police Department's Threat Assessment Unit, which is focused on handling stalking incidents.

That's not an outright unworkable premise for a show. But here's where things get icky.

Beth is a former stalking victim, while Jack appears to be actually stalking someone (his ex-wife). An extended bedtime ritual at Beth's apartment makes it clear she's terrified of what happened to her happening again. And she should be. In Stalker's pilot, the primary stalking victims are women. Women who suffer nasty violence on screen. Women like the character in the opener, who's chased by a guy wearing a mask then burned alive in her car as she's screaming for her life. Or the one who's later doused in gasoline in an elevator but manages to escape.

These are super uncomfortable scenes, made downright reprehensible by the fact that the goal of all this violence is painfully unclear. Are we, the viewers, supposed to be scared right along with them? ("Most stalking victims are like you and me," Beth says.) Are we supposed to be outraged that such things are happening? Yes, stalking is a serious issue, made particularly relevant by the modern problem of online harassment. The pilot proposes that "Social media is the No. 1 reason stalking cases have tripled in the past decade."

But there's got to be a more tactful way to bring to light such crimes.

For starters, cut down on the violence for violence's sake. Stop showing McDermott's character, Jack, a total dirtbag, in such a positive light. (He gets all the ladies! He's so smart he can practically solve an entire case by standing in a victim's apartment!) And get rid of horribly disrespectful lines like this one, said about a stalking victim: "Laurie is a strong, ambitious professional. Being a victim is a sign of weakness, so she chose to ignore her fears."

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Right, kind of like how such sexist, sensationalist ideas are a sign of extremely lazy television writing.

Michelle Stark can be reached at mstark@tampabay.com. Follow @mstark17.