Set in 1982 L.A., with the classic melody of Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time” throbbing on the soundtrack, a nameless girl inside a car parked in the Hollywood Hills is bobbing between the thighs of an unimpressed Kent Grainger (Ed Westwick) just before he plunges a knife into the back of her head.
It turns out that Kent’s also a serial killer and a necrophiliac. But he does have a softer side—he likes babies.
The opening minutes of Wicked City’s premiere Tuesday night mostly encapsulated the gist of ABC’s newest and boldest show: sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and, evidently, death.
“That’s right, folks,” said a local news anchor character early on. “Another day, another corpse in the murder capital of the country.”
It was a warning there’d be more clichés to follow. While the anchor mentioned above referred to killings in ‘80s L.A. as routine, the same could be argued of modern-day America in general.
Audiences today are numb—desensitized, some claim—to the oversaturation of dismembered corpses, blood-streaked walls, and “shocking” crime scenes lit in the flashing bulbs of the paparazzi, all of which appeared in the first 30 minutes of Wicked City. Differentiating among all these competing crime dramas may be more difficult than identifying a dumped body. This was Wicked City’s true killer: unoriginality.
Beneath his charm and prickly stubble, we discover that Kent has child abandonment/mommy issues. Stabbing unsuspecting women trying to please him is one thing, but apparently he draws the line at killing a nurse named Betty Beaumontaine (Erika Christensen) because she’s a single mom. The plotline’s reprieve ignores the likelihood that he’s probably already murdered lonely single moms before without knowing or caring about their back story.
Conveniently, Betty is also a little cuckoo. This insight is revealed when she crushes a spider in her hand, away from the eyes of her impressionable children. The moment left me wondering if I could be a serial killer, too, because I also kill bugs when they come into my house, but at least I feel guilty about it. Betty hones her sadistic ways on duty in the hospital when she yanks stitches out of an old man after stabbing him with a needle.
Maybe Kent knew Betty had that side to her, just waiting to develop under his tender care. His sparing her sparks the beginning of a whacky and disturbing romance. It’s too early to tell where this pair will go. They are reminiscent of a Bonny-and-Clyde-like duo, but that comparison—referenced constantly by ABC’s marketing campaign—creates concern that this psychotic couple will not stray far enough from the source material to make watching their exploits compelling.
On the flip side of Wicked City, we meet “good cop” Jack Roth (Jeremy Sisto). He bickers with his undesirable-sidekick Paco Conteras (Gabriel Luna) each and every step of the way, making this crime procedural a grueling process. Jack is hell-bent on taking down the famed “Hillside Strangler” (no, not Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono), but the closest the detective gets to Kent in the season premiere is an accidental shoulder-brush in a cramped nightclub on Sunset Strip, making this “cat and mouse” storyline explicit for any viewers who somehow may have missed it.
While Wicked City airs late at 10 p.m., presumably after the kids are in bed, it is a risky step for Disney-owned ABC Family channel, considering their usual fare. Featuring disturbing adult-oriented content like this may be an early sign of what’s to come when the network changes its name in January to Freeform, with the goal of attracting a wider audience in the coveted 18-34 demographic.
The show is being promoted as a 10-episode anthology series, similar to American Horror Story or True Detective, which means the next season—if Wicked City even lasts that long and let’s hope it doesn’t—would jump to a different time slot. But it means 10 episodes of serial-killer-and-tortured-cop clichés, people yelling “bitchin’!” as an adjective, an overabundance of cocaine and way too much hairspray, accompanied by an ’80s soundtrack of Soft Cell, Iggy Pop and Joan Jett. Wicked City might be worth a binge-watch on Netflix, but definitely not a long-term committed relationship.