There is a mystery at the heart of “Wicked City,” but it’s not captured by anything that happens on screen. Actually, the confounding questions about this program are legion. Why did anyone think television needed yet another serial-killer drama? Why did someone at ABC greenlight this pallid copycat, which is almost exactly like NBC’s “Aquarius,” a bland retro murder mystery that aired on NBC last summer? How did “Wicked City” survive the pilot-script stage, when its groan-inducing dialogue and paper-thin characterizations were surely obvious?
But the biggest question of all is, why did anyone think this drama, which features a woman being murdered within the first few minutes, would be a good fit for ABC’s aspirational and allegedly female-friendly brand?
Of course, ABC doesn’t have to turn every hour-long offering into the next “Quantico” or “Scandal,” and networks should be encouraged to break out of their usual parameters — if given good reasons to do so, that is. Unfortunately, nothing about “Wicked City” feels new or fresh, and that’s not just because the drama is set in 1982.
Presumably the show’s milieu — the Sunset Strip’s early ’80s rock scene — was chosen because it theoretically could infuse “Wicked City” with a sense of danger and charisma, but the drama is sorely lacking on both counts. “Wicked City” is, at its core, a police procedural, one in which a cynical cop, Jack Roth (Jeremy Sisto), tracks a murderer who appears to be a charismatic lady-killer in every sense of the word.
But both sides of the cop/criminal equation are lacking in this tepid drama, which clearly shoots for cable-drama grittiness and never really gets there. Roth and his ambitious partner squabble in all the expected ways, and seeing dismembered body parts doesn’t bring the same shock it used to, not given the blood-soaked TV environment in which the show debuts.
Speaking of partners, the man who is revealed as the killer in the opening minutes, Kent Grainger (Ed Westwick), also picks up a collaborator, but that duo has little chemistry and even less depth. Granger is a cloying creep with a mental profile straight out of Psych 101, and it’s hard to imagine that ABC’s audience will want to see these aggrieved characters play out their entirely predictable cat-and-mouse games over the course of an entire season.
Westwick, whose lighter charms were generally used to worthwhile ends on “Gossip Girl,” is miscast here, not that the script helps the actor give any real texture to Grainger’s oily personality. Erika Christensen does her level best with a character who is very different from the woman she played on “Parenthood,” but there is something so dour and perfunctory about both lead characters and the world they inhabit that it’s hard to sustain interest in where they’re headed next.
Also stranded in this cast is Taissa Farmiga, who was last seen in two different seasons of “American Horror Story.” That FX show certainly isn’t known for shying away from violence, though at least the stylistic boldness and thematic aspirations of the “AHS” franchise occasionally lift its bloodier moments into the realm of art. The same can’t be said of “Wicked City,” a trifling and thoroughly inert drama about a murderer who is called “a tragic soul” in the program’s press notes. There is something tragic about “Wicked City,” but it’s not the lead character.