CBS’ Vile and Exploitative ‘Stalker’ Is the Worst Show of the Fall TV Season

The pilot episode of Stalker begins with a crying woman being chased and attacked by an unknown assailant. Viewers listen to her scream and watch her burn alive inside a car, the victim of a violent, angry man. That is all you need to know about Stalker to get the ugly gist of CBS’ newest procedural and Kevin Williamson’s latest chapter in his book dedicated to excessive torture-porn television. Stalker is torture in every sense of the word: torturous in the show’s content and torturous for viewers to watch. 

Williamson’s career trajectory is an odd one. He created the incredibly popular WB teen drama Dawson’s Creek, which is still remembered fondly, but also went the opposite route with horror flicks: the Scream franchise, Teaching Mrs. TingleI Know What You Did Last Summer. In recent years, Williamson has worked on soapy CW teen drama The Vampire Diaries, which has its ups and downs, and on the virtually unwatchable The Following; in lieu of viewing those episodes, I recommend reading The A.V. Club’s weekly reviews to watch the various writers slowly descend into madness while trying to make sense of such an unnecessarily gory and astoundingly terrible program. His newest, Stalker, is more like The Following than anything else, in that it is horrifically unwatchable, completely useless, and overall just terrible.

Stalker wants to shock and terrify viewers with statistics: over six million people — including one in six women (that’s the fact Wiliamson latches on to) — are stalked, and “social media is the number one reason stalking cases have tripled in the last decade.” Then the show gets personal: Anyone can be a stalker and anyone can be stalked — even you! In fact, probably you if you’re a woman and use Tinder. Definitely you if you happen to work in the “Threat Assessment Unit,” where your job is to find and stop stalkers. In Stalker, everyone brings work home. Or, more specifically, creepily follows work home from behind bushes and through shadowy alleys.

Stalker also wants to make its viewers uncomfortable with violent imagery and vile criminals. In a better show, you could argue that these elements are testing limits and making a point about what people will watch. But on Stalker, you know it’s just Williamson and CBS thinking that pouring gasoline onto a woman would make for a gnarly visual. I can only imagine the casting breakdown for Stalker‘s victims: “Woman who looks pretty when crying, with the lung capacity to scream for hours. Must be able to rock the morgue slab like a runway.”

Lieutenant Beth Davis (Maggie Q) and Detective Jack Larsen (Dylan McDermott) are at the center of the series. They’re both so terribly and predictably written (harboring secrets and fears and highly personal connections to the business they’re in), with wooden chemistry and stilted line readings, mostly because of the lines they’re being forced to deliver. Davis is the smart, no-nonsense (but feminine and delicate) Lieutenant; Larsen is the department’s new transfer. Larsen is Every Male Detective. He has a “big personality” and “is not for everyone.” He makes bad jokes at inappropriate times. He leers at Davis. He might even be a stalker himself, but he wears a nice tie and acts so chill that Davis secretly, totally wants to sleep with him.

Stalker really isn’t about these two detectives, though. It’s not overly concerned with anything except the stalkers and the violence. Again, there are ways in which Stalker could be a better show by really examining motives or giving voices to victims, but all of that is far too smart. Why care about the victims when Stalker could focus solely on the men: the men who stalk, the men who angrily smash bottles against the wall, the men who douse women in gasoline, the men who say, to their partner at work, that they stared at her breasts because she was “wearing a silk blouse, hint of a bra, red fingernail polish; I took the male leap that it was meant to be noticed and my eyes lingered in hopes that you would be flattered.” Later, Larsen asks Davis, “Why do you wear sexy things if you don’t want men to notice?” When she replies that she dresses for herself, he waves away that answer: “Nice try.”

Maybe you can make the argument that this is Stalker‘s way of showing Larsen’s vile characteristics and immediately painting him as Davis’ villainous enemy, but I get the sinking feeling that this is the show’s way of establishing him as cool and flirtatious. It’s similar to the scenes inside Davis’ house: lingering on her slowly undressing, brushing her teeth, whipping her (sheer?!) curtains closed, etc. The style is meant to be voyeuristic, to reflect the show’s stalker theme, but the overall icky, skin-crawling tone of Stalker gives off the vibe that this directing choice is exploitative and just meant to show off Maggie Q.

In such a lackluster season of television, it’s kind of impressive that Stalker manages to be the worst new show by a wide margin. It’s tone-deaf, it has the absolute wrong priorities, and it does exactly nothing to explain or understand the very concept of stalking, even though that’s what the entire show is based around. It ignores victims, attempting instead to make its stalking cases — and its stalker detective — sexy, in order to create flashy stories from atrocious crimes. There is nothing redeemable in Stalker. It’s worthless.