Kill LA: A critical review of “Wicked City” (2015)

What is it that’s so darn attractive about Los Angeles these days? The city of my birth is seeing a lot of mayhem on the small screen these days; the stylish re-hash of the O. J. Simpson trial on FX’s “American Crime Story” and Fox’s devil-may-care cop drama “Lucifer” are two that spring to mind, not to mention Lifetime’s attempt at the Manson killings with “Manson’s Lost Girls.” But I first noticed this phenomenon last year, when a fresh crop of Angeleno thrillers sprung up.

ABC’s “Wicked City” underwent a remarkable transformation partway through its first season, by which I mean, “Wicked City” was canceled partway through its first season. I was confused at the time. I had seen a few episodes and the show was fine–certainly no worse than a dozen other dramatic procedural cops shows running around. So when I saw that all episodes of the series were available posthumously on demand, I was determined to finish the series.

Ah for those naive days.

“Wicked City” tells the imaginary-yet-plausible tale of a serial killer (Ed Westwick) striking the Sunset Strip in the 1980s. Among the wannabe actresses he’s carving up, our killer finds a female friend (Erika Christensen) to be his galpal/murder partner. Worry not, for the gruesome twosome is being pursued by a pair of LAPD’s finest with personal problems (Jeremy Sisto and Gabriel Luna as the uneasy partners, Karolina Wydra as the comely undercover cop).

Visually, “City” is nothing to write home about, so it’s nice that the script leaves something to be desired. These are definitely character types you have seen before: the cop who’s drinking too much, the serial killer with mommy issues, the, uh, naughty nurse. The show could be campy, except it seems to be taking itself seriously; if that is the case, “City” did not have a feel for its own format.

“City” is trying to say something about the city of Los Angeles by way of fame: the killer wants to achieve notoriety, and he kills women who try to achieve notoriety. The reporter (Tamara Farmiga, “American Horror Story”) wants to become famous as a journalist, and must consider the destructive nature of achieving notoriety. Even the cop’s daughter wants to become famous as a musician (apparently, although this never really comes up…but we’ll get to the show’s failing to exploit its themes later). One could argue that on the flipside, Wydra’s undercover cop wants to avoid notoriety–to lose an identity to her work. She is linked romantically to a Sisto’s policeman, who is similarly trying to avoid the identity of a married man and lose himself in an affair. However, these themes are not explored in any meaningful way.

Case in point: In one episode, a drug dealer recognizes Luna as a former dirty vice cop–again, an identity being kept under wraps. The two men quietly threaten each other back and forth until Sisto steps onto the screen and Luna clams up. It is one of the most genuinely tense moments in the series, and its revelation feels surprisingly organic. So, naturally, having found a brilliant niche to mine…the show never brings it up again.

Therein lies the problem. From murders and motives that range from unlikely to increasingly done for the sake of shock, to music and fashion that are blissfully unaware of the era (dig that wildly un-80s cover of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” in the last episode), “Wicked City” is one big lost cause–45 minutes of broadcast television desperately trying to be edgy. Despite a decent start, the writing becomes increasingly contrived as the series winds on. Despite a decent cast, the characters never reach for anything. Simply put, “City” began with too few advantages and slowly carved each one away until there was nothing left but the gangly skeleton of a familiar stretch of Los Angeles highway.

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