Review: Wicked City 1×1 (US: ABC)

For those who enjoy turgid shows with no moral code

In the US: Tuesdays, 10/9c, ABC

There was a time when the anthology show ruled US airwaves. Jobbing actors would show up for a week in The Twilight Zone, The Night Gallery, General Electric Theater, Studio One or whatever, then move on to the next gig. But increasing production values, logistical difficulties and viewer choice started to make that weekly anthology show more or less impossible; the power of stardom also meant that if you could get an actor or actress with a significant fanbase in a starring role, people would watch week after week, no matter what the story, which made the anthology show less and less attractive.

But over the past few years, the format has started to return. It began, oddly enough with Love Bites, a somewhat terrible NBC romcom that featured a different couple every week. That failed very, very quickly, in part because the scripts were just awful, but also because the formula wasn’t quite right. Weekly wasn’t the way to go.

Instead, it was cable that developed the correct format for a modern anthology show, with first American Horror Story and then True Detective. With an audience who likes serial drama but who wants eventual conclusions to their stories that haven’t been drawn out too long, what could be better than a season-long story with a beginning, middle and an end, the next season then telling a completely new story in the same vein? With a bit of cleverness, you can even appease fans of the shows’ stars by having the cast come back to play different characters if they want – or just let them go off to the next job if they’d rather, just like in the old days, since that way you can get big names with limited availability to come in for just a season.

It’s a scheme that certainly worked with ABC’s American Crime, a ‘so good it could have been HBO’ drama about the terrible effects of the American judicial system and all the other systems that have evolved around it. Now ABC are hoping to repeat the show’s success with Wicked City, a “a character-driven, true crime procedural that explores sex, politics and popular culture across various noteworthy eras in LA history”.

The first season is set in 1980. Or maybe 1982. A few years after LA’s Hillside Strangler struck, anyway. Ed Westwick (Gossip Girl) is a serial killer on the make, emulating his idol, the Strangler, by killing girls he picks up in bars then leaving them dead in the same places. It’s something to do with his father having left when he was eight, apparently.

Then one night, he’s about to chop the head off Erika Christensen (Six Degrees, Parenthood) and then have sex with her corpse, when she reveals she’s a single mother. Things get even better when it turns out that not only does she have sociopathic tendencies of her own – she’s one of the killer nurses you hear so much about it these days – she quite enjoys pretending to be a corpse while Ed Westwick has sex with her.

It’s a match made in heaven, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, a couple of brave male, squabbling cops – Jeremy Sisto (Kidnapped, Suburgatory, The Returned) and Gabriel Luna (Matador) – are on Westwick’s trail, hoping to stop him before he can kill yet more young women. All while listening to as many 80s classics and using as many pagers, rotary dial payphones, old Mustangs and 4:3 TVs as the music and props departments can provide.

Unfortunately, there is one problem with the modern anthology format that Wicked City fails to overcome: you actually need to make people want to watch the next season, or even the next episode, hopefully by writing some good scripts. And avoiding complete moral bankruptcy.

Welcome to Los Angeles, circa 1982, during the rock ‘n’ roll, cocaine-infused revelry of the Sunset Strip. But all is not glitter as there’s a serial killer on the loose, and two detectives find themselves on one of the toughest cases of their careers. “Wicked City” follows a unique case set in this noteworthy era of L.A. history, with the detectives determined to track down and bring the killer to justice before another murder can occur.

Many young women come to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a star. And the Sunset Strip was totally the happening place to be seen and make some connections. But you can’t come to the City of Angels without bumping into some evil, which takes the form of Kent Grainger (Ed Westwick, “Gossip Girl”), a tragic soul who craves attention and goes on a murderous rampage to obtain notoriety. Kent is a chameleon who trolls the clubs to pick out his prey and pretends to be a Hollywood VIP who could help these hapless young ladies become stars. But if he finds one special enough to call in a personal song dedication to the local radio station, they are as good as dead.

Detectives Jack Roth (Jeremy Sisto, “Six Feet Under,” “Suburgatory”) and new partner Paco Contreras (Gabriel Luna, “True Detective”) are assigned to the case, and they will definitely have their work cut out for them. Jack has worked some high-profile cases in his time and has numerous contacts on the street. One such contact is Dianne Kubek (Karolina Wydra, “True Blood,” “Crazy, Stupid, Love”), an undercover cop posing as a strip club cocktail waitress/drug dealer. Having an affair with each other also puts a strain on both their working and professional relationship. And Jack still holds a grudge against Paco, who narced on his ex-partner and got him kicked off the force.

Jack and Paco get a break when they stumble upon Karen McClaren (Taissa Farmiga, “America Horror Story”), a young, struggling journalist who is trying to write a big story on the Sunset Strip and make a name for herself. Unbeknownst to her at the time, she was approached by Kent in a club and gave him her phone number. She was also a witness to one of the ladies leaving a club who was later murdered. After getting a call from Kent to meet her again at the club, Jack and Paco convince her to be used as bait to try and catch the killer. But can they protect her against this monster?

Meanwhile, Kent has found himself a young woman who may be his ‘Bonnie’ to his twisted ‘Clyde’ in the form of Betty Beaumontaine (Erika Christensen, “Parenthood”), a nurse and single mother of two with a bit of a sadistic twist. He will find himself tempted to slowly pull her into his perverted world, perhaps joining him in his murderous rampage.

Alliances will be formed between detectives, reporters, drug dealers and club-goers to help solve this case and get this nut job off the street. But the clock is ticking as Kent continues to set his sights on the innocent, and Jack and Paco will go to any means necessary to hunt down and capture this scumbag – dead or alive.

“Wicked City” stars Ed Westwick as Kent Grainger, Erika Christensen as Betty Beaumontaine, Jeremy Sisto as Jack Roth, Taissa Farmiga as Karen McClaren, Gabriel Luna as Paco Contreras, Karolina Wydra as Dianne Kubek, Evan Ross (“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay,” Parts 1 & 2) as Diver Hawkes, Anne Winters (“The Fosters”) as Vicki Roth and Jaime Ray Newman (“Drop Dead Diva”) as Allison Roth.

Is it any good?
It’s problematic at many levels, not the least of which is it’s amazingly dull, given it supposedly “explores sex, politics and popular culture”.

So let’s get the most problematic things out of the way with first. Clearly, it’s not so keen on women. You have vulnerable young women being murdered by a sexy male serial killer, usually while they’re giving him a blowjob. The crimes are being investigated by two men, one of whom is cheating on his wife with a stripper who may also be an undercover cop. The only other women of note are a young female journalist (Taissa Farmiga) who’s next on Westwick’s murder list, and Christensen, who’s going to be helping him with that.

‘Oh dear.’ It wouldn’t have been quite so ‘oh dear’ if it weren’t for the fact the show really thinks all this serial killing, necrophilia, bondage and knife work are really cool, sexy, ratings-friendly things. But it does, and I’m wondering if it should be recommended to a psychiatrist.

Next biggest problem is Jeremy Sisto. Now he was fine in Kidnapped, but whether it’s the mellowing of age, too many years on Suburgatory, or simply the fact he was called in at the last minute to replace Adam Rothenberg when Ripper Street got resurrected – look, they even had cast photos taken with Rothenberg in it…

Adam Rothenberg in Wicked City

…he doesn’t exactly ooze ‘hard boiled, serial killer apprehending detective’ these days.

Jeremy Sisto in Wicked City

Next up is the script, which is yawn-inducingly derivative. Beyond Christensen joining in on the murder spree, there’s nothing here you won’t have seen before, whether it’s ‘cops who have a beef with each other being forced to work together and striking up a friendship’ to ‘cops having to use a young innocent to bait the killer’. I was stopping this every couple of minutes to read my emails, look through a book catalogue, eat a pudding and more. Literally every couple of minutes – I know this because I kept looking at the “time left” reading every time I did and wondering how the episode could still be running yet only have 40 minutes of actual content.

Lastly, there’s the period setting. Now, I grew up in the 80s and so my internal fashion clock naturally got stuck there, so 80s fashions tend to be invisible to me – I don’t notice them in movies, because everyone is wearing the clothes people should be wearing, so why would I notice them? As a result and to the show’s credit, a lot of it all seemed fine to me and I didn’t notice it, beyond the picture quality being a lot better and wider than it was when I was young.

But Wicked City is another show that doesn’t want to say exactly when it’s set. So unlike The Americans, say, which does a very good job of matching fashion and props to specific year, the cast have a range of clothing and hairstyles that come from anywhere between 1978 and 1992. It’s the 80s, but we’re not being any more specific than that, because then Sisto would have to go to the hairdresser.

The other trouble here is that the show really wants you to know it’s set in the 80s. The soundtrack is relentless with Human League, Soft Cell, Amanda Blank et al, and is probably the show’s best quality; ‘Billy Idol’ turns up and other musicians are set to make an appearance, too; and every shot and script flourish seems to take in whatever period point it can, whether it’s a camera that uses film or an answerphone with a cassette. 

This also extends to film homages. Hmm, serial killer, punk group on stage, LA night club? I wonder exactly how many shots can be set up to reference Tech Noir in The Terminator

Yes Wicked City, they had push button payphones in LA in 1984.

So what does that leave, after all the problematic elements have been accounted for? Not much to be honest except Ed Westwick, who’s excellent as Chuck Bass’s even more evil but less urbane LA cousin.

But I imagine that an anthology show based around Ed Westwick killing women in different eras of LA history probably wouldn’t wash very well with the American public, and rightly so, so Wicked City‘s one hope at making it to a second season are probably for nought.

Which makes me wonder – what’s the difference between a modern anthology show that gets cancelled after a season and a regular show that gets cancelled after a season?


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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