TV really doesn't get much uglier or more cynical than CBS's Stalker (Wednesday, 10/9c), a crass and calculated attempt to keep the Criminal Minds crowd appeased for yet another hour of tacky, icky violence — disproportionately perpetrated against unfortunate women — presented within a glum, indifferently acted formula.
Maggie Q and Dylan McDermott, as detectives in the LAPD's Threat Assessment Unit (TAU even rhymes with Minds' BAU), have capably led enjoyable shows in the past (Nikita, The Practice), but they're mostly defeated by all of the clinical exposition citing stats about stalking, as if to give this show some sociological reason for being. Doesn't work.
This is the latest from Kevin Williamson, who seems to have lost all of the wit he once poured into delectable spine-tinglers like the Scream movie franchise. Stalker opens on a graphic scene that gained instant notoriety earlier this year when critics first caught a whiff of this poison at the CBS Upfront (and then had the misfortune of watching the pilot). Mini-spoiler alert: A terrified woman is doused with gasoline by a Masked Stalker, runs in a panic to lock herself in her parked car, which is then set afire as it careens down a hill and explodes, incinerating the poor screaming victim.
This is a terrible crime, to be sure, but does that make Stalker scary? Not really. Fear needs to be earned, beyond someone stepping out and going "boo" or committing a sudden, savage act on a character you only met a minute earlier. This is the cheapest sort of shock tactic, and one Stalker employs regularly to try to spice up the otherwise routine procedural grind. Stalker is the worst of both worlds, somehow managing to be both dull and disgusting.
Maggie Q at least comports herself with an understandably grim resolve, but McDermott's character, a cocky New York transplant with a personal agenda, instantly grates with his jokey banter: "I was hoping to meet Scarlett Johansson," he quips, assuming his new job will be all about celebrity stalkers — give it time. For now, we're left with a sense that everyone (including the good guys) could be a potential stalker or stalk-ee. And that includes us, because the show often has us looking at people through windows or in unguarded private moments, as if we're the voyeur — a device at least as old as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, which at least allowed us to develop some empathy for the victim and villain. Stalker? Not so much.
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SOAP OPRY: I'm under no illusion that critical derision will keep Stalker from drawing a bigger crowd than will likely tune in for the enjoyably sudsy antics of ABC's struggling Nashville (10/9c), easily the most entertaining network show in this time period. While many of the Season 3 storylines have an awfully retro feel — closeted gay chart-topper Will (Chris Carmack) trying to boost his unhappy wife's career while reality-TV cameras keep rolling; Juliette (Hayden Panettiere) keeping her surprise (though not really) pregnancy a secret while she auditions, in full bewigged regalia, for a Patsy Cline movie — Nashville is at its best when reflecting the realities of an ever-changing music industry.
Though Rayna (Connie Britton) is busy launching a new album and label while keeping gossip vultures at bay regarding her engagement to fellow superstar Luke (Will Chase), she must face the music when she's bumped from the top of the charts after only one week. "What got you here is not going to be enough to keep you here. The rules have changed," her manager warns her. (This rule, by the way, applies to nearly every aspect of the media: TV, movies, publishing.) So while these Nashville stars, and hopeful stars, adjust to a new status quo, there's much pleasure to be had in Nashville's reliance on old-fashioned storytelling, with its roller-coaster relationships and strained family ties as comfortably familiar as the tunes pouring forth from an all-country jukebox. (And keep an eye peeled for new recurring cast member Laura Benanti, a Tony-winning musical-comedy star who classed up short-lived series including The Playboy Club and Go On and upstaged Carrie Underwood in The Sound of Music Live. She only has one brief scene this week as up-and-comer Sadie Stone, but is destined for more face — and voice — time soon. Can't imagine a more welcome addition.)