Wicked City Series Premiere Review: The Sun Goes Down on the Sunset Strip

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On the series premiere of “Wicked City,” we took a trip back to 80’s-era Los Angeles, where a serial killer is currently wreaking havoc in the heart of Hollywood, on the Sunset Strip. Set amidst the heady days of hair metal and loose morals, when picking up potential victims was as easy as claiming to be in a position of power in the entertainment industry and able to help someone out- that is, if that person was willing to help you out of course. Cue the trip to Lover’s Lane- which never ends well in a show like this.

Several things drew me to want to review this show: the setting, Sunset Strip, which has always fascinated me, thanks to growing up with a sister who adored hair metal and longed to go there herself; the music, which, while admittedly hit-or-miss depending on the band, is nonetheless engaging in that it distinctly calls up a time and place in history where quite literally “anything goes,” to quote a popular Guns N’ Roses song of the time- perhaps for the last time to that extent in history, thanks to the scourge of the AIDS virus; and the general premise, in terms of tracking a serial killer in the mold of the Hillside Strangler.

In terms of the last, the Hillside Strangler is actually a bit of a misnomer, as the culprit actually turned out to be two individuals: Angelo Buono, Jr. and his cousin Kenneth Bianchi, working together to kill ten women in the late 70’s. Although this show begins with a lone killer emulating the Strangler’s crimes in the order in which they were committed, starting with leaving a body in the famed Forest Lawn Cemetery (which also cropped up in the “American Horror Story: Hotel” premiere), it does end with the implication that he has taken on a partner, just like his predecessors.

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Another big draw for me was the cast, which includes “AHS”-vet Taissa Farmiga as Karen, a reporter working for “LA Notorious” magazine, who longs to work for “Rolling Stone” and has a run-in with the killer, Kent Grainger, played by “Gossip Girl”-alum Ed Westwick; Jeremy Sisto (“Six Feet Under”), as a detective on the case, Jack Roth, who also played an integral part in capturing the Hillside Strangler; Erika Christensen (“Traffic”) as a nurse that becomes involved with Kent- and possibly collaborates with him in his killings; Karolina Wydra (“True Blood”) as an undercover detective working at a strip club that is having an affair with the married Roth and helps him out on the case; Jaime Ray Newman (“Eureka”) as Allison, Roth’s wife; and Gabriel Luna (“Matador”) as Paco, a newly-reassigned cop partnered with Roth who is struggling to fit in, thanks to a seemingly iffy background.

Westwick, the erstwhile Chuck Bass, always seemed just one tick shy of being a sociopath on “Gossip Girl,” so he’s nothing if not believable as the bona fide psycho killer here, who charms his way into women’s good graces at the clubs, posing as an A&R guy, then takes them to isolated places to seduce and kill them. As with many a serial killer before him, Kent struggles with his sexuality, having troubles completing any sort of sexual act, which serves as a large part of the reason for his resentment of women in general.

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Here, he meets Betty (Christensen), who he fully intends to kill, but stops short of it when he discovers she has children and an ex-husband who ran out on them. Also in keeping with many a serial killer, Kent also comes from a broken home, and has an unusual affinity for children, who he genuinely seems to have an affection for, as evidenced by the fact that he’s trusted to babysit a neighborhood woman’s little girl from time to time. While that affection doesn’t seem to extend to the girl’s mother, it does seem as if he actually is good with kids, and that is a large part of what attracts him to Betty in earnest.

However, Betty appears to have quite a dark streak as well, as we see when she first seems to “save” a spider that her kids are freaked out by, only to take it outside and crush it like a…well, bug. “First do no harm,” indeed. Later in the show, she also gets a rise out of Kent tying her down and menacing her with a knife- which, in turn, gets a rise out of him as well, if you know what I mean and I think that you do. It would seem that the two end up teaming up to seduce and kill women in the episodes to come, if the preview for the next episode is any indication, making for a sort of Bonnie & Clyde-meet-Mickey & Mallory Knox (as in “Natural Born Killers”) sort of dynamic.

While better-known as of late for the likes of “Parenthood,” Christensen first came to my attention with the movie “Swimfan,” in which she played a “Single White Female”/”The Crush”- type of character that falls for a guy and ends up stalking and terrorizing him when he rebuffs her. I must admit, she was so strong in the role that ever since then, every time I see her in anything, I’m halfway convinced she’s THIS close to hauling off and killing someone at any given moment. So, buying her as a burgeoning psycho-nurse isn’t as much of a stretch for me as it might be for those more accustomed to her in family dramas.

So, in terms of the leads, the show is well-cast, and that extends to the rest of the cast, though perhaps one could argue that Farmiga seems a bit young for her role, though, in reality, she is 21. She just looks like a teenager playing dress-up at times, but that might actually prove to be a good thing, given her character, who is supposed to be a bit on the naïve side. After all, she very nearly got herself killed by Kent in the first scene, who only didn’t because he already had a date that night, opting to put her off for another day.

Now, he’s caught sight of her talking to Detective Roth, who I’m assuming he knows is a cop, given his obsessive viewing of the news to see if his antics are mentioned. Indeed, at one point, Roth actually stages a press conference to call Kent out and let him know there will be no media coverage of his crimes as he’s just a copycat that doesn’t deserve such notoriety. In doing so, Roth, of course, hopes to draw Kent out, which he does, to a certain extent, as Kent lures him to a location and leaves him the head of his latest victim, the one whose headless body was found at the aforementioned Forest Lawn Cemetery.

However, Roth blows it when he is seen talking to reporter Karen, thus scaring off Kent in the process from going through with trying to abscond with her and kill her as planned. Instead, he picks out another victim at the same club, the famed Whiskey a-Go-Go. When we last see him, Betty has shown up after blowing him off at work earlier, looking at first upset. Then Kent whispers something into her ear and next thing we know, the three of them are leaving together. And so it begins, and so it ends.

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So, insofar as pilots go, I’ve certainly seen worse. The show is nothing if not stylishly shot, and the locale is suitably flashy, with the costuming as gaudy and trashy as one would expect, given the scenario. Bonus points for the superlative soundtrack as well, which includes lots of Billy Idol– he ostensibly “performs” in the final scene, though it’s clearly a double standing in for him- as well as the likes of Foreigner, Soft Cell, Iggy Pop, Romeo Void, Blondie and Pat Benatar. Although I admittedly have mixed feelings about hair metal itself, I’m not going to lie: I do like a lot of the music of the era, and as far as I was concerned, I had no problem with any of the songs featured here, even if they leaned towards the obvious hits of the time. It would be nice if the show got into some deeper, lesser-known cuts, but there’s still ample time for that.

Honestly, it’s too soon to say if this will have the necessary drive to keep viewers tuning in, but the premise isn’t bad, and the show does seem to already have more forward momentum than the somewhat similar recent “Aquarius,” which revolved around Charles Manson. While that show’s gritty tone made sense, given the late 60’s time period it was set in, it also kind of shot itself in the foot by postponing the murders Manson is best-known for indefinitely. However, it did get renewed for a second season, so perhaps there is something to be said for the approach.

Here, the show wastes no time in getting to the action, as Kent takes his first victim in a somewhat shocking manner, at least for TV- he stabs her to death in the head as she is, um, shall we say, “pleasuring” him, ultimately cutting off her head in the process. Lord knows I’ve seen way worse in the movies, but it was still a bit jarring to see oral sex depicted in prime time television, I must say. Gotta compete with pay cable, I guess. (See also “Scream Queens,” which would be downright alarming in what it gets away with on a major network if it weren’t so obviously played for laughs.)

I suppose which approach you prefer will determine whether you like this or not. If you want shows to cut to the chase and get to the “good stuff,” then this is clearly the show for you. Otherwise, you’re better off waiting for the return of “Aquarius,” which got away with as much as this show does, particularly in terms of sexuality (they even had a gay male sex scene that was pretty graphic for TV) but adopted much more of a slow burn approach to the material.

To be honest, I kind of prefer the “Wicked City” approach, but there’s something to be said for subtlety, I suppose, depending on the results. To me, “Aquarius” was a little too poky for its own good, and quite frankly, I was a little surprised it got renewed. Only time will tell if the limited-run “Wicked City” fares as well, but clocking in at a relatively stealth ten episode run, it’s not that big of a commitment, and the plot and cast are just solid enough to maintain the interest of those who like this sort of thing, IMHO. So far, at least.

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To be sure, the show is hardly reinventing the wheel here, but only time will tell how the show proceeds from here. My hope is that it will alternate between exploring the mentality and methodology of the killer (possibly killers) at hand and the attempts to catch him/them by the authorities, and forgo the sort of besides-the-point cases-of-the-week crime procedural format that bogged down “Aquarius.” For that show, most came for Manson, no doubt, but got way more other stuff that they probably bargained for. Hopefully, that won’t be the case here, as to me, at least, that’s what the main problem was with “Aquarius.” We shall see.

What did you think of the premiere of “Wicked City”? Did it hold your interest? Did you like the cast? How about the music? Or the setting and locations? Do you have a favorite character yet? How do you hope the show will proceed? Will you keep watching? What criticisms do you have of the show thus far? Any ideas as to how the show could be better or is it too soon to tell? Sound off on this and more down below, and I’ll be back with a review around the midway point of the show!