"Stalker" creator Kevin Williamson walked into a room full of hostile critics at the TCA 2014 summer press tour, but that's when you get when your pilot opens with a random woman getting doused with gasoline and set on fire in her own car by a stalker.
Williamson's attempts to deflect the logical questions provoked by such ugly exploitation ranged from humor to self-importance to flat out frustration. His stars, Maggie Q and Dylan McDermott, sat on either side and remained largely silent throughout the panel (save for a few direct, and totally generic, questions that came their way).
There's no doubt a good deal of the reaction was driven by Williamson's recent work fetishizing murder sprees on a weekly basis for Fox's "The Following," although he doesn't see much similarity himself. "I'm really curious to see what people do when they compare the two shows," Williamson allowed. "To me it's apples and oranges. 'The Following is meant to be a little horror movie every week, a popcorn thriller, it has that violent stabby-stab element to it but ...
"['Stalker'] is a crime drama. We're on CBS, this is a procedural. It follows a unit that investigates stalking on a weekly basis. It's eerie, it's creepy, it's suspenseful. I know in the teaser we have the car sequence, that was maybe being a little flashy..."
Williamson claims he's had the idea to do a show about stalker investigations since his own brush with an obsessive admirer following the release of "Scream 2." (His history of violent entertainment began on the irony-laced slasher franchise, before moving on to the comparatively tame coming of age turmoil of "Dawson's Creek.") "I had an overzealous fan. Someone broke into my house after leaving some letters," he revealed.
It was at that point that he became aware of the LAPD's Threat Management Unit, which morphed into the Threat Assessment Unit for his show. He said the actual TMU was created in response to the death of "My Sister Sam" actress Rebecca Schaeffer, who was killed in 1989 by a deranged fan. Now, Williamson gets to explore the world with this show: "We get into the various ways people stalk and fixate, that's the fun for me."
Despite the grotesque opening, Williamson insists the show won't exclusively portray women as stalking victims. But it may also be hard to avoid. The simple fact is that when it comes to stalking, women are disproportionally targeted. "One in six women are stalked, one in nineteen men. It is edged toward women," Williamson said. "As we go into the series I balance it out, I'm very attentive to that. Everyone can be a stalker, everyone can be a victim. Women, children, groups, gangs. It's a very complicated insidious crime. I'm hoping to raise a little bit of awareness to this crime that has increased so dramatically due to social media."
That's where the dubious socially "relevant" aspect of the show comes into play. Williamson hopes that by watching the show people may be more cautious or responsible in their use of social media: "You put all [your information] out there and you're basically encouraging an obsessive mind to consume that and to consume you. That's one of the things we explore in the show." One of his tips? "Post where you've been, not where you're going."
Instead of trying to explain where his own show might be going and whether or not the pilot is truly representative of his vision for the series as a whole, Williamson trotted out old chestnuts like "Let's talk next year when we see all 22 episodes" and "[If you don't like it] turn the channel."
At a certain point, Williamson even tried to convince the crowd that "Stalker" might actually be a heartfelt show. "I try to tell emotional stories," he argued. "I'm looking for my 'Dawson's Creek' montage at the end of every episode. I wrote this listening to Radiohead's 'Creep.'"
Still, when it comes to those opening moments, Williamson essentially agreed they set the tone. "It was made to be a creepy eerie show about stalking and the unit that investigates these crimes," he said when asked if he's worried the opening may frighten some viewers away. "It is a scary show. You have to want to tune into this show to watch the good guys catch the bad guys. If you do it could be a fun, informative, thrilling ride."