“Stalker,” which debuted on CBS this week, is not that. Instead, it begins with an extended sequence of a woman being burned to death in her own car by a man wearing a mask that turns his features into an unnerving blank. The way the camera luxuriates on images of the woman’s pain and terror, rather than on her killer, has the unnerving effect of asking us to share his perspective and fascination with her agony.
What follows is not an improvement. It turns out that one of the main characters on the show, a new detective assigned to the Los Angeles police department’s stalking investigations unit (Dylan McDermott), likes to do a little extracurricular creeping around himself. The message of “Stalker” is split: Stalking can be a hideous, brutal crime, but it is also a spicy little detail that can be used to give a character an exciting frisson of darkness.
The National Center for Victims of Crime was so outraged by the show that Michelle Garcia, director of the organization’s Stalking Resource Center, wrote to CBS president and CEO Les Moonves to express her dismay.
“One of our greatest challenges in keeping victims safe and holding offenders accountable is the minimization and normalization of stalking behaviors,” she wrote. “This show only makes our work more difficult by framing stalking as entertainment. Would CBS air a show called ‘Rapist’ and justify it as a way to raise awareness about sexual violence?”
In the current media environment, the answer to that question is not an automatic “no.” But the point is not really that Kevin Williamson made an amoral stalking drama, which he has every right to do. The point is that there is something wildly insulting to viewers’ intelligence about trying to pass off an amoral stalking drama as sophisticated, socially conscious television.
Williamson is hardly alone in trying to earn praise for, or at least avoid criticism of, retrograde programming by claiming that what seems offensive is actually commentary on racial bias, violence against women or male entitlement.
Former Fox president Kevin Reilly did this last summer with “Dads,” a multicamera sitcom from Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. The series started with some queasy tropes: Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi played, respectively, a dudebro and a whipped young husband whose lives get worse when their racist, sexist dads crash with them.
“These guys are going to try to test a lot of boundaries. They are going to try to be equal-opportunity offenders. Do I think all the jokes right now are in calibration in the pilot? I don’t,” Reilly said when the pilot came out. “Here’s what I ask of you. If this show still has low-hanging-fruit jokes that seem in bad taste and haven’t been earned with intelligence, and the characters have not become full blown over the course of the next summer months — number 1, the show’s not going to work. And number 2, you should take it to task, and we’ll talk about that in January.”
“Dads” was not better by January. And by this summer, Reilly was gone from the network.
And this happened even back in 2012, when FX President John Landgraf tried to sell me on Charlie Sheen’s then-new sitcom “Anger Management.”
“Part of what the show is about, frankly, is a kind of comeuppance,” Landgraf insisted. “For example, he has a teenaged daughter, he has an ex-wife, his ex-wife has questionable tastes in men, and he was the first of her questionable tastes in men. But now, as a co-parent, he has to deal with a series of men in his 13-year-old daughter’s life, and that’s a kind of comeuppance for him.”
If it was comeuppance, “Anger Management” handed out an awfully gentle punishment to Sheen’s character. And the show’s carelessness turned out to be creative as well as political. Produced on rushed schedules, interrupted by Sheen’s clashes with his co-stars, it turned into just another slapdash multicamera sitcom that people seem to tune into mostly by accident.
Television executives and creators seem to have learned that they can persuade viewers and critics to check out a second or third episode of their shows by promising that they are socially relevant. But a good pitch does not make a show smart about politics, and it does not make it good at entertainment.
“Stalker” should serve as official notice. If you really want to make a socially engaged show, you do not get full credit just for trying. And if you try to pass off trash as treasure, the penalties for lying, or at least pandering, are going to be severe.