All art is political. It might not mean to be, or it might not be any good at making its points; it might not even be aware of the points it’s making. But works of pop culture are not made in a vacuum, and every choice a TV show makes, it makes from within an existing array. This doesn’t mean, of course, art has an obligation to be nothing but morality plays featuring Goofus And Gallant dichotomies. Vast swathes of great art have been made about pretty dreadful people.
However, there are complications. For one, there’s such a long tradition of rooting for the hero simply because the story takes his perspective that narratives centered on antiheroes can find themselves accidentally adjusting viewer perception. Take Breaking Bad, in which the show itself was aware Walter White was both interesting and becoming a monster. Yet Bryan Cranston’s magnificent performance and the show’s dark humor made Walt so relatable that audience sentiment routinely sided with him against wife Skyler whenever she suggested her husband not be a violent drug lord any more.
There has also been necessary cultural discussion recently about narrative responsibilities when portraying traumatic events, such as the difference between a narrative about rape and rape as a narrative device. (How to tell the difference: Compare the first-season Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode “Closure”—which tracks a rape victim’s experience from the 911 call to the agonizing release of her rapist—to any number of other episodes of SVU that forget their “special victims” are people, too.) Into this cultural quagmire comes Stalker, the newest offering from producer Kevin Williamson (The Following), who has claimed he doesn’t want Stalker “to become a show that’s just about violence against women.” Unfortunately, he’s said this about a series that begins with an unnamed woman being chased by her stalker and burned alive in her car.
The cops assigned to investigate the crime are Beth Davis (Maggie Q, trying to wring a full character from what she’s given) and Jack Larsen (Dylan McDermott, first seen adjusting his tie on his unbuttoned shirt to achieve maximum smarm). Their main point of conversation outside the case is fallout from their initial interview, where he jokingly listed Fatal Attraction, Cape Fear, and Swimfan as research for the stalking unit. He can’t understand why she’s standoffish: “I’m sorry I stared at your breasts. It’s why you don’t like me.” He later re-visits the breast question with Clarence Darrow rhetorical flourish: “Why do you wear sexy things if you don’t want men to notice?”
The fact that Larsen’s a stalker is played as an intriguing twist for a cop who should know better, though it’s an unsurprising development, except in the show’s attempts to suggest that perhaps he has a case for stalking his ex and their child, since he cares so much. (The other option—that the show’s introducing a main character as a ticking time bomb of violent obsession—is possible, but so callous as to be beyond commentary.) Davis is a victim of stalking herself; amid the show’s many horrors, the idea that a stalking victim dresses her ground-floor windows with sheer curtains is somehow among the most tone-deaf beats. It’s a small detail, but suggests that despite enough research for nuggets like, “Social media is the number one reason stalking cases have tripled in the last decade,” Stalker is only vaguely concerned with victim psychology. As a show that must, by its very premise, pick sides, Stalker tips eagerly toward the wrong one.
It’s a trickle-down effect that’s both eye-rolling and chilling. The lazy storytelling is not unexpected: Williamson is clearly going for the easiest-possible outcome of a stalking (violence) rather than actually getting into the psychology of what it usually means to be stalked. In the pilot’s “regular stalking” case, it’s hard to prosecute/prove, so a character uses violence and shifts the stalker’s attention and motives to set up the violent outcome elsewhere. It’s no surprise that the show goes for the flashiest payoff, but it also means anyone who watches it can’t even delude themselves into pretending Stalker is trying to understand what it means to be stalked.
But generally, the stalking is presented in ways that might be uncomfortable even if they were more skillfully presented: During a walkthrough of a stalker’s methods, Larsen delivers profile assessments of the victim’s terror with gooey relish, savoring the angle at which she slept to keep one eye on the door. Upon finding a peephole in the ceiling of a second stalking target, our heroes discuss the setup like the beginning of a dirty phone call. “Our freak would just lay up there and watch her.” “Above her, like he was on top of her.” Like you would lie on top of someone for the consummation of the sex act goes unsaid, but presumably only because they’re interrupted by news that will lead them to their man.
And perhaps this is the most disturbing thing about the show: Underneath its calculated, moist-palms glee, underneath its transparent hope that people will tune in for the macabre thrill of watching an assembly line of victims fail the cop-enforced safety rubric in an easily blameable way, this is a show that thinks it’s engaging the subject rather than just recreating it. It’s a show that presents a two-dimensional, sexually harassing obsessive cop as a sympathetic soul, through whom we’re meant to understand that the psychology of stalking isn’t always cut-and-dried villainy—sometimes it’s your male lead! Unfortunately for Williamson and Stalker, cultural signposting is not a game a story can tap out of when it gets tricky to play. You cannot write a show about stalkers that suggests stalking might be understandable—even a little sexy, maybe, as long as you’re not the one getting burned to death. It’s an insidious, show-wide point of view that Williamson himself, as it turns out, cannot defend. Speaking to members of the Television Critics Association, Williamson said, “We all can be stalkers. We’ve all stalked someone at one time.” When asked by the TCA “Why is this interesting? Why is this fun or entertaining?” Williamson answered only, “Turn the channel.”