Thursday, October 2, 2014

Pilot Review: Stalker

Stalker (Wednesdays at 10:00 on CBS)

Let's first clear the air on something: Stalker is not the misogynistic, heinously violent series that many reviewers have made it out to be. Anyone who has blasted the show for its opening sequence, in which a woman is trapped in a flaming car that then explodes, simply has not watched it. While this scene is creepy and suspenseful and suggestively violent, the actual murder is not shown. That goes for the entirety of Stalker. While it tackles a subject that is inherently disconcerting and voyeuristic, the show itself is actually relatively tasteful. There was more on-screen violence in this week's second episode of Gotham, and the torture scenes are almost all mental rather than physical, so it doesn't even compare to creator Kevin Williamson's last show, The Following. The show itself may not be the most progressive or the most unique, but it's better and more timely than its early detractors have suggested.

In yet another CBS procedural, Stalker follows the Threat Assessment Unit of the LAPD, a group of detectives that investigates in-person and cyber stalkings. Lt. Beth Davis (Nikita's Maggie Q) is assigned the department newbie, the off-color transfer Detective Jack Larsen (American Horror Story's Dylan McDermott, fresh off the failure of last season's Hostages). Together they handle the aforementioned case of the woman burned alive, while Beth goes solo to help a male college student whose former roommate is stalking him.

The tone of Stalker is noticeably dark, similar to its lead-in, Criminal Minds, and Law & Order: SVU. The latter show is probably the most apt comparison to make for the new show. Both have strong policewomen as leads with dark pasts they try to overcome through their work, and both shows deal with cases that are based on psychological power struggles. It's the psychology of Stalker that interests me. The two cases handled in the pilot are about obsession, but in very different ways: one sexual, one power-based. Add in the obsessive nature of both Davis and Larsen, and the psychological aspects really pop. Davis is the former (possibly current?) victim of a stalker herself, and Larsen is stalking his own ex-wife and child, so they can each identify with one side of each case: she with the victim, he with the perpetrator. It doesn't exactly make you want to root for Larsen right off the bat, but it certainly adds another level to things. McDermott does his best to make the slimy Larsen charming, but his tone deaf jokes (when asked why he's in the stalking unit, he responds with, "I just want to meet Scarlett Johansson.") and sexist comments ("You hate me because I stared at your breasts," he concludes after incurring Davis's wrath) work against him at every turn... plus the whole following-his-wife-and-son-across-the-country thing. Maggie Q fares better in a younger, lither, more impulsive version of an Olivia Benson type. She's focused, no-nonsense, and compassionate, and because she was once a victim, the audience immediately understands her.

As disparate as the two leads are, so is Williamson's script. There's an uneasy flow to things, from the wham-bang opening to the leisurely (but still creepy) final moments. A lot happens in the pilot, not the least of which is two stalking cases. I like that the second male-on-male case was included, if only because I think there's a cultural misconception that men are never the victims of violence like rape and stalking, but it feels like an afterthought, and it crowds the episode. It exists, however, to play to Davis's strengths. Whereas the primary case plays into Larsen's hand when they investigate the crime scenes, seeing as how he can get into the mind of the stalker, the stalked college student gives Davis the opportunity to connect and empathize. Still, it's uneven in how it's presented. Director Liz Friedlander (The Secret Circle, The Following) handles the violence well, as I said earlier, but little stands out as visually stimulating or unique. Although there is one scene in particular that is shot perfectly and should become Stalker's calling card: a woman packs a bag and we see her rug being rolled up behind her as her stalker ascends through the floor from a crawlspace. It's a scary, unsettling scene that speaks to exactly what the show is about: the unseen, the unknown, the unexpected. It's moments like that one which make Stalker's relative shortcomings (too much going on, unoriginal, unlikeable lead character) feel like they don't really matter. It's a series that wants to shock you, wants to make you uncomfortable, all while questioning our morals and our voyeuristic habits. Stalker isn't great, but it's better than its already-bad reputation would have you believe.

So, again, just to be clear: this show doesn't hate women. It's not all about showing violence against women. Is there a female murder victim in the pilot? Yes. But there is also a male victim of stalking. There's a male murder victim as well. To focus on one aspect of a show that is about the complexities of human interaction is silly. Stalker, and the subject it explores, is about more than just one, surface-level thing.

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