It’s time to bury the serial-killer drama on TV. The genre’s official time of death comes about five minutes into ABC’s Wicked City, an unbearably trite new “event series” set in Los Angeles in 1982. A handsome creep named Kent Grainger (Ed Westwick) hits on a girl at the famed Whiskey a Go-Go and drives her into the Hollywood Hills at night. She proceeds to perform oral sex on him in his car ... until he reaches for a knife and stabs her to death. Hollywood has long casually mixed sex and violence in poor taste, but Wicked City feels especially egregious: It’s a desperate play to be a dark, adults-only story that comes off instead as purely childish.
Wicked City is, in short, gross: headless corpses, murder mid-coitus, and Westwick’s leering face. But it’s gross with no deeper purpose. Everything about the show feels cribbed from greater efforts on similar topics, like BBC’s The Fall or Showtime’s Dexter. So when Kent stabs his victims in his car, it’s easier to roll your eyes at the tastelessness than to actually feel horrified. On top of that, Wicked City features a tortured cop: Jack Roth (Jeremy Sisto), an LAPD homicide detective who seems to be the acknowledged expert on serial killers. His diagnosis on this new one? Probably mommy issues, he pronounces. In other words, Wicked City makes it clear from the start that it has no intentions of bringing anything original to an already crowded TV subgenre, and that it hopes to lure fans of better shows.
Unlike NBC’s Aquarius, a summer dud about the Charles Manson killings, Wicked City is not based in truth, but has conjured its “Sunset Strip Killer” from plenty of established serial-killer tropes. He’s a sexually dysfunctional wounded soul, who’s supposedly charming (he’s able to talk women into his car). He forms a connection with a nurse named Betty (Erika Christensen) after his attempt to murder her goes awry; the show seems to be setting her up as his future accomplice. And he’s trying to get the attention of the media, publicly displaying his victims’ dismembered bodies so that Roth will be assigned to the case.
But like Aquarius and Fox’s The Following—another slasher drama on network TV that almost seemed too proud of its proclivity for sexual violence—Wicked City has all the beats of a standard cop show, with juvenile attempts at “mature content” mixed in. Roth is two steps away from the grizzled straight-arrow Sisto played on Law & Order, but he’s meant to seem more flawed and dangerous by the fact that he’s having an affair. Kent’s method of killing women is absurd from a procedural standpoint: He stabs them while they’re on top of him, practically bathing in their DNA, but on Wicked City, the more garish the deaths, the better.
Perhaps most hilariously, Wicked City’s backdrop is 1980s Los Angeles, which the show renders as shallowly as possible. Several scenes are set at the Whiskey, a rock club that launched the careers of groups like Van Halen and Motley Crue. Accordingly, gleeful hair metal pervades the soundtrack as the body count rises, and a supposedly dramatic final scene is set to ... a Billy Idol concert. This isn’t to disparage the high-energy output of these peroxide-blonde gentlemen, but there’s no good reason to make the Rock of Ages soundtrack the musical backdrop for slaughter. (Any chance at seriousness is immediately lost at the sound of “White Wedding.”)
The performances don’t help the show much either: Westwick’s main misstep is acting obnoxiously sinister from the get-go. He became well-known for playing a creep before, Chuck Bass on Gossip Girl, but that show started out with him as a villain and worked to slowly rehabilitate his character. On Wicked City, viewers know Kent is depraved, but he’s supposed to be able to switch on the nice-guy charm to lure ladies out of the Whiskey and into the hills. Instead, Kent seems even scarier when he’s hitting on women than when he’s stabbing them to death, making it hard to root for his poor victims.
Christensen doesn’t fare much better as a seemingly well-meaning single mother, partly because all her darker notes come off too obviously. For example, in one scene she has a friendly conversation at work, but then she goes and sadistically sticks a patient with a needle while sewing up his stitches. Later, she puts her cute kids to bed and then goes outside and squashes a spider with murderous joy. It all feels a bit uninspired, and the show doesn’t really offer any backstory to explain her grim behavior.
Wicked City might have gotten away with all of this if it were clearly going for camp, but the tone is too muddled, and Kent’s crimes are nauseating, rather than cheekily gory. He’s no Zodiac Killer, even if the show wants him to be. Like The Following and The Fall, it seems to be setting up an epic cat-and-mouse game between Kent and Roth that can only end one way. As a 10-episode “event,” Wicked City will likely wrap with Kent’s death and/or capture (this is still network TV). But if ratings were good, it’d come back in some form or another, perhaps with a new killer. The Following managed to last for three putrid seasons, killing and reviving its anti-hero more than once, but here’s to hoping Wicked City doesn’t have that kind of luck.