The Human League’s irresistible 1981 single “Don’t You Want Me” has a heart of darkness concealed beneath its bright, buoyant melodies and shout-along chorus. Wicked City, ABC’s Los Angeles-based true crime anthology, is set in 1982, which is difficult to forget since its pilot is jammed full of era-appropriate pop music cues. “Don’t You Want Me” isn’t among them, but it can only be a matter of time before it pops up, seeing as the show explores similar themes of relational power imbalance and psychosexual manipulation. But the song is seductive, sinister, and subtle, and Wicked City has none of those qualities. The show is so violent, dumb, and blunt, it could have been pitched by unfurling the viscerally disturbing one-sheet from William Lustig’s infamous proto-slasher Maniac and saying “It’s basically this, but a TV show.”
That’s not to suggest that Wicked City pulls from the horror genre, though that would be an easy assumption to make considering a woman is brutally stabbed to death while performing fellatio within the show’s first 10 minutes. Inasmuch as Wicked City can be considered a genre show, it takes its cues from erotic thrillers, a once-bankable type of film that has fallen out of favor due to the increased availability of pornography that doesn’t include the death of a domestic animal. Like the mostly risible films that inspired it, Wicked City is neither erotic nor thrilling, and no amount of period detail is enough to make up what it lacks.
Ed Westwick, late of Gossip Girl, leads the cast as Kent Grainger, a smooth-talking serial killer stalking the Sunset Strip in search of naive party girls to dismember. To further ground Kent in the late-’70s/early-’80s zeitgeist, he’s given the Hillside Strangler as a spiritual mentor, and he seeks to continue the killer’s reign of terror by planting bodies at sites associated with the Strangler’s crimes. But Kent’s kills aren’t just tributes to his idol. Because fictional thrill killers exist solely to torment hard-working detectives, Kent links his crimes to the past to attract the attention of Jack Roth (Jeremy Sisto) and Jack’s unwanted partner Paco Contreras (Gabriel Luna). Kent lures Jack and Paco into a classic game of law-and-order cat and homicidal mouse, set against the backdrop of the Sunset Strip’s bacchanalian post-glam rock music scene.
The shopworn plot will feel especially tiresome to anyone who watched NBC’s Aquarius, which, in dramatizing a cop’s pursuit of Charles Manson, gives the 1960s the same sleazy, serialized treatment Wicked City brings to the 1980s. Both shows rely too heavily on nostalgia, especially in their use of pop music cues. City burns through a Time Life sampler within its first hour, and Billy Idol, who gets his own onscreen representation, gets hit especially hard. Idol’s “Eyes Without A Face” factors in prominently—though for the show’s purposes it’s too bad the song isn’t called “Torso Without A Head”—and by the pilot’s end, Idol’s discography has been whittled down to the deep album cuts. That ensures City is fun to listen to, but the music doesn’t make it anymore fun to watch. Considering NBC made the unprecedented decision to offer up Aquarius’ entire first season for binge streaming on its website, ABC’s traditional rollout for the very similar City seems like network hubris at its worst.
Then again, according to ABC boss Paul Lee, City tested through the roof with millennials, though most of that is probably fueled by Gossip Girl nostalgia, assuming such a thing exists. Westwick made smarmy charm look easy in his performance as Chuck Bass, but his take on Kent never quite comes together. Kent is transparently creepy, the type of date for whom rescue-call apps were invented. It’s hard to believe he could convince anyone to go for a drive with him, because by this point in history, making out at a scenic overlook was already known to be a perilous activity even if your companion wasn’t giving off a distinct Norman Bates vibe. Sisto fares better in his performance, though that could be because it’s a slightly different shade of the same world-weary, haggard-hot detective he played in NBC’s short-lived Kidnapped and again during Law & Order’s final throes. It’s a confident performance, but his stubble is doing roughly half the work.
The women of Wicked City handle their roles more deftly, particularly Erika Christensen as Betty Beaumontaine, a single mother with a sadistic streak who proves especially susceptible to Kent’s manipulations. After meeting her at the Whisky A Go Go, Kent quickly woos Betty and introduces her to erotic knife play as a warm-up exercise. Before long, he’s convinced her to join him in his misogynistic campaign and they set off together in search of distressed damsels in distressed denim. Christensen is perfectly cast, and her wide-eyed smile and cherubic face are the ideal vessels for Betty’s gleeful walk on the wild side. Were the show conceived around Betty, making her the actor as opposed to a damaged innocent drawn into Kent’s web, the show would be a much more interesting show. As it is, Wicked City doesn’t have much to offer except for more gratuitous violence against women. But it’s got a great beat, and you can dance to it.