It's rare that professional TV critics and the professional moral scolds at the Parents Television Council agree on anything, but both groups found Wednesday's debut of CBS drama "Stalker" to be over the line. Critics found the pilot, which opened with a scene of a masked stalker dousing a woman with gasoline and setting her on fire as she screamed for help, to be "sensationalist," "sexist," "exploitative,""nihilistic," "gratuitous," and "unforgivable." The PTC, mincing no words, called it "torture porn."

"Stalker" may not, in fact, be more graphic or gory than other violent crime dramas on network TV (for one thing, it follows "Criminal Minds" on the CBS Wednesday night lineup), but it does seem to have an undue amount of violence for the sake of violence. Not to mention a tone of unremitting grimness. It's the sort of show that you can tell, just 30 seconds into it, whether or not you'll have the stomach for it. "Torture porn" may be a bit overstating it, only because that term, as generally applied to movies like "Saw" or "Hostel" where people are graphically dismembered and disemboweled in order to offer the audience a deliberately shocking, envelope-pushing thrill, seems slightly more excessive than what's going on here on primetime broadcast TV – but the intent seems the same, to push the medium's limits of acceptable presentation of violence for horror purposes.

The show's creator, Kevin Williamson, started his career parodying the conventions of slasher movies (with the "Scream" franchise) but now makes TV shows that embrace them (notably, "Stalker" and Fox's "The Following.") He's not alone; a show like NBC's "Hannibal," the latest spinoff of Thomas Harris' epicurian serial killer character Hannibal Lecter, revels in creating violent tableaux, the more creative and outrageous the better. Ostensibly, these shows probe the minds of stalkers and killers, as if to explain why some of them see their murderous work as something literary or otherwise artful, but to look at and present violence that way is not to explore the killer's mindset but to buy into it. The implicit message of the scriptwriter and the killer is the same: "Can you believe I just did that and put it on display for you?"

It's hard to imagine who finds this sort of thing entertaining. Yes, the sensationalism is there because, on the most primitive level, it works, but there's nothing behind it, no larger point about human nature, no redemptive sense that the good guys are even capable of saving the day (both of "Stalker"'s lead cops have their own stalking issues that dilute their ability to help others). Who would come home after a long day of work, prop their feet up on the ottoman, and click on "Stalker" in order to relax, be entertained, feel a sense of cathartic relief, or be transported via escapism to a world less bleak than their own?

And who would sponsor such a show? Is this really a friendly environment for your commercials? After viewers have watched a woman drenched in gasoline and torched in her own vehicle, how effective is your car ad going to be? Do you really have market research showing that this is the sort of material that the upscale 18- to -49-year-olds you're trying to reach are drawn to? Or maybe it's just like the local TV newscasts, which, like these cop procedural dramas, play upon and exaggerate our fears of violent crime well beyond its actual prevalence in real life, in order to make us fearful and therefore more susceptible to advertising that plays on our insecurities.

It's worth noting that all TV violence is not created equal. There are still bloody deeds on cable, both basic and premium, that are far more gruesome than the typical cop-show murder. But even on a show like AMC's "The Walking Dead" or HBO's "Game of Thrones," where gore is common, the violence is there in the service of character development, of creating a world that, for all its brutality, really is escapist and different from our own, one where frequent violence is understandable because it's part of the rules of how that world operates. Or else, in a world more recognizably our own, as in, say, HBO's "True Detective," the horrific acts of violence are few and far between –- there's just enough to let us know what the moral stakes are, but the show is mostly about two lead characters having philosophical discussions. And even on (now completed) shows like "Dexter" (with its own serial-killer hero), "Breaking Bad," and "The Sopranos," the often homicidal protagonists at least wrestled with moral questions (mostly: can noble intentions justify evil acts?) and the spiritual cost of their violent actions. There may be some viewers who come for the explicit thrills, but they stay for the complex characters and vivid storytelling.

It's understandable that the networks feel they have to up the ante on violence to catch up to cable. They're losing viewers to pay services – not just cable, but streaming, video games, and other entertainments where sensationalist is served up, albeit to paying customers who know what they're in for. The networks may be at a disadvantage here (they still have to answer to sponsors, the FCC, and angry activists like the PTC), but upping the violence just for its own sake isn't the way to level the playing field. If they want to draw sophisticated viewers, they need to do it with better storytelling and more interesting characters.

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