‘Wicked City’ Pilot Recap: “Nobody Cares About This Killer”

The ads for ABC’s new drama ‘Wicked City’ have bent over backwards to emphasize the fact that the show is a crime thriller. That’s probably intended to let the audience know that, unlike pretty much everything else on the network these days, it’s not another thinly-disguised soap opera. Points for that, I suppose.

On paper, the show has a lot of attributes that ought to make a more compelling program than the final product actually turns out to be. Chief among them is the very atmospheric setting of the Sunset Strip club scene in 1982 Los Angeles, a time and place where a lot of major rock acts were just starting to burst forth. Inserted into this is the story of a sociopathic serial killer named Kent Galloway (Ed Westwick from ‘Gossip Girl’) who cruises the strip and preys on naïve young girls with big dreams of becoming musicians or actresses or otherwise famous. A smooth operator, he tells them he’s a talent manager or an agent or some other person of influence, lures them to a Lookout Point makeout spot, and slaughters them in his car. Otherwise impotent, the act of killing is the only thing that brings him sexual gratification.

Jeremy Sisto is Jack Roth, the Robbery Homicide detective cop working this case. He helped catch the Hillside Stranglers a few years earlier and notices obvious similarities here. Galloway is a big fan of the Stranglers and deposits his bodies in the same crime scenes as a way of taunting the police.

Taissa Farmiga is an ambitious young journalist named Karen McLaren. While covering the Sunset Strip rock scene for a local rag, she very nearly becomes Galloway’s latest victim. Fortunately, Jack figures out that she’s been targeted and interrupts.

The main focus of the show is on Kent’s relationship with Betty (Erika Christensen), a single mom and nurse whom Kent initially plans to kill, but soon finds himself genuinely bonding with. Betty has her own dark side (she enjoys causing her patients pain), and Kent sees in her a potential companion in crime. He introduces her to a little S&M bondage, and has his first non-murder-related orgasm when he convinces her to roleplay as a corpse he can fuck. She’s a little confused at first, but then gets turned on by it. The pilot episode ends with Kent picking up a new mark in a club and inviting Betty to join them so he can show her his real idea of fun.

Episode Verdict / Grade: C+

Because Kent and Betty are in effect the heroes of this story, not Jack or Karen, the show has a lovers-on-the-run vibe in the vein of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ or ‘Badlands’, played to a soundtrack of Joan Jett and Soft Cell hits.

The soundtrack is actually my biggest complaint. The producers obviously spent a lot of money licensing every Top 40 hit from the year, and by god they’re determined to play every single one of them. Not a scene goes by without a recognizable, overplayed song slathered on top of it as shorthand to remind you of what year the story’s supposed to take place. One club scene has what’s supposed to be Billy Idol performing in the background. The music works much harder than any of the other period production values (the costumes and hairstyles, etc.), which feel like dress-up, with the occasional beeper or teletype machine thrown into a scene to show off. The effect quickly becomes obnoxious.

Westwick has a decidedly unique screen presence, and the role of a charming serial killer suits him. I’ve never especially warmed to Christensen as an actress. She does an acceptable job as a corruptible innocent, but I’d rather see Farmiga play that character. Sisto is basically just reprising his role from ‘Law & Order’ with the twist that he cheats on his wife with a fellow cop.

The show want to tease viewers with how dark and edgy it is, but does so from the comforting confines of a major network primetime drama. Despite the setting, it feels very familiar. In fact, substitute the 1980s with the 1960s and this could be an episode of NBC’s ‘Aquarius’. It’s not awful, but it didn’t grab me.

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