Two new dramas premiering in the next week stand as Exhibit A and Exhibit B in the case against network television. Sure, there are exceptions to the rule (“The Good Wife,” "Hannibal" and, um, potentially interesting shows like “Gotham” and “How to Get Away with Murder”), but even the big five would admit that cable and streaming services have been pulling their audience from them over the last few years. Why? What’s happening here to keep the creative chasm growing? Is it purely a difference in expectation between what we expect on HBO vs CBS? Or is there something more insidious at play? Looking at CBS’s “Stalker” and FOX’s “Gracepoint,” something dawned on me. These shows don’t like you. They don’t respect you. They don’t think you’re smart or emotionally capable of feeling for yourself. In short, they think you’re stupid. And it’s that talking down to people that is forcing them elsewhere to find better programming.
A little context on “Stalker,” premiering tomorrow night, October 1st, on CBS. I’ve been writing about TV for over a decade now, cutting my teeth on recaps of “The Sopranos” and “Deadwood,” and being there when shows like “LOST,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Wire” took over the critical consciousness. In that time, I’ve reviewed literally hundreds of new shows. I can think of not one program that repulsed me more than “Stalker.” It sounds like hyperbole, but “Stalker” made me feel gross. It made me want to shower. It made me want to give up network drama altogether. You’re unlikely to feel that strongly as it’s more of a diversion for most of you and not a career. But do you want to take that risk?
“Stalker” is an ugly, misogynistic, vile program. It opens with a woman being burned alive in her car, and moves on from there to more scenes of victims being covered in gasoline. It should come with a trigger warning for anyone who has dealt with violence in their real life. It’s torture as entertainment. If something like Eli Roth’s “Hostel” popped up on CBS, the outrage would be instantaneous, but are we really aesthetically that far from that kind of horror film in a show like “Stalker” that turns this kind of extreme violence against women into alleged entertainment? Just because it has Kevin Williamson’s name on it instead of Eli Roth’s? “Stalker” is a show that turns real-life horror into escapism. And that’s gross.
It would be one thing if Williamson and his staff were
trying to shine a light on a dark corner or the world in order to help
eradicate the darkness. Trust me when I tell you they are not. Williamson
notoriously said at the Television Critics Association that “everyone has a
little stalker in them.” No, Kevin, they don’t. And forcing audiences to identify with a protagonist
like Det. Jack Larsen (Dylan McDermott), who happens to be a stalker himself
while working on the Threat Assessment Unit of the LAPD, is actually dangerous.
It tells viewers, this guy catches stalkers, so it’s OK that he has a little
bit of that in him as well. Because he’s really a “good guy”! I’m not the kind
of person who morally judges characters on television—it’s more about the
execution in all forms of entertainment than the narrative. However,
normalizing stalking by placing it as a “character trait” in a procedural is quite
simply dangerous. It tells viewers, many of them young and impressionable, that
stalking is something that can be measured by degrees. Don’t worry about
terrorizing someone as long as you don’t go too far, right? Is that the message we want to send in 2014?
Pulling back from the moral opposition I clearly have to Williamson’s approach to this material, it’s just not well-made even if the subject matter doesn’t offend you like it does me. It’s overheated (not unlike “The Following”) and implausible. McDermott isn’t bad (he never is); ditto Maggie Q. But the show looks fake and shiny, with that slick CBS procedural that tries to disguise the actual horror of what’s being shown with quick cuts and beautiful cast members. “Stalker” is the show that’s really ugly at its core but tries to look as good as it can to hide that fact. Audiences are too smart for that. At least I hope they are.
Speaking of underestimating an audience’s intelligence, FOX’s “Gracepoint,” a remake of the spectacular 2013 British drama “Broadchurch,” is my biggest disappointment of the year precisely because someone got it in their head that Americans can’t handle subtlety and nuance. If you’ve seen the great “Broadchurch” (and you should), imagine that show, sometimes shot for shot, but with more chest-beating, crying, melodrama and emotionally revealing dialogue. Imagine every character’s trait amplified to the point where they don’t feel real any more. The suspicious religious figure is creepier. The suspicious father is more menacing. The suspicious old guy is, well, more suspicious. It’s like a remix of a great song with added instruments and increased volume, smothering what worked about the original.
The body of a teen boy named Danny Solano ends up on a northern California beach. His parents (Michael Peña & Virginia Kull) are in shock. Detective Ellie Miller (Anna Gunn) is forced to investigate the case, despite the fact that her family are close friends with the Solanos. She’s joined by newcomer Detective Emmett Carver (David Tennant), who has a dark past of his own. Who killed Danny? Suspects include the reclusive Jack (Nick Nolte), mysterious Susan (Jacki Weaver), minister Paul (Kevin Rankin) and even Danny’s dad.
Perhaps “Gracepoint” will work better for those who have not seen “Broadchurch.” I can’t honestly imagine anyone who has seen the original preferring this one. The British series is about the ripple effect of murder and suspicion on a small town. The remake is not. It is about melodrama, unbelievable dialogue and exaggerated behavior. While it’s shot for shot at times, and plot point for plot point, it’s more reminiscent of Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” in the manner in which it goes through the motions but misses the heart of the original drama’s purpose. It’s not nearly the horror show of “Stalker,” and a few of the supporting performances work, as does the cinematography, but it’s more of a program that just doesn’t justify its existence. Like too much network drama, it is hollow. And until the nets stop giving us empty programs, we’ll go elsewhere for substance. I'm starting to wonder if they even care if we come back.