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CBS’ new show “Stalker” spends approximately seven minutes of its pilot featuring women being doused in gasoline. Its premiere features violence so exploitative and gratuitous that even Quentin Tarantino might feel a bit uncomfortable if he gets around to watching the show. Yeah, there are plenty of heinous crimes on television. Heinous crimes are the bread and butter of great shows like “Law and Order.” But when a show is delving into such hateful behavior, there is a responsibility to process the nature of the act, how it is dealt with and why it is part of our world.
As if things could get more terrible than “seven minutes of women being doused in gasoline," that aggression becomes even more troubling because "Stalker" sets it up as a direct result of the victim not giving her attacker what he feels he is owed. This idea pervades the mentality of the show. At one point, Dylan McDermott asks his partner on the stalking task force why she dresses so sexy if she doesn’t want men to notice (despite the fact that she spends the entire episode wearing sensible blouses probably from Ann Taylor LOFT). That world view is taken to its furthest point in the crime scenes. “Do you know what you said when I asked you out?” one of the disturbed portraits of masculinity asks his victim, while covering her in gas. “You said you were seeing someone,” he says, whipping out a match. “You lied.”
Even worse, the woman felt the need to assert another man's ownership over her in order to reject the stalker. She actually yells “We’re better off as friends!” while he continues soaking her in flammable liquid, and it’s all too much to bear. Here is the mission statement of “Stalker,” loud and clear and burning in a fiery blaze of misogyny: Women owe men their bodies. If they don’t give them up, they are going to get literally burned.
The male entitlement on the show is rampant, but we can have a discussion about what is wrong with the exploitative violence of “Stalker” without even talking about gender. Portraying violence on television can be done in a way that is not so "excruciating and glib" (as Daniel Fienberg described the show over at HitFix). There is even an effective way to feature rape as long as the victim is the focal point of the story, it is not used as a mere plot point and victim-blaming is actively criticized. (It’s sad that it’s so old and still probably the touchstone here, but “The Accused” is a great example of that done right.)
In terms of procedural TV shows, “Law and Order” is the best possible foil for the hour-long pile of garbage that is “Stalker.” “Law and Order” trades in crimes that get a 10 on a scale of one to Burning Someone Alive. But the focus always shifts to the handling of those acts. It becomes about the victim or, if not, processing the mental illness responsible for the suspect’s behavior. At its core, the show is about how we can work against the state of fear that so many people (especially women) are forced to live in because these kind of crimes are part of our reality. (It’s worth noting that other violent shows that don’t deal in prosecuting crimes, like “The Sopranos” or “Breaking Bad,” still execute violent scenes in way that is effective to storytelling and character development. “Law and Order” simply functions as a closer comparison.)
Violence for violence’s sake only makes sense in the mind of whatever deranged criminal is trying to burn people alive, etc. It then falls on the show to dissect what kind of structure allows for these things to happen. “Stalker” sends up the disturbing extent to which male entitlement can flare and then blatantly refuses to explore it further. It’s not that there can’t be violence in art (or even on crappy primetime cable shows that probably don’t count as art). It’s just that when there is violence it needs to be executed responsibly or those violent scenes will just serve to further perpetuate all of the evils they represent. After Wednesday night, the “Stalker” pilot is the only thing we should be trying to set on fire.
Follow Lauren Duca on Twitter: @laurenduca