The True Detective of Network TV

Wicked City features a necrophiliac serial killer and plenty of shocking violence and sex—but somehow makes it all seem tame.

Wicked City
Ed Westwick and Erika Christensen in Wicked City.

Couresty of ABC/Eric McCandless

In the past few years, the networks, chasing anything that might bring them buzz and ratings, have frequently tried to copy cable by importing large amounts of sex and violence into their shows, as though what was good about The Sopranos were the wackings and the strippers. Wicked City, the L.A.-based, ’80s-set anthology series that begins tonight, is ABC’s attempt to create a blue-chip crime show along the lines of a True Detective. It has sex and violence aplenty, as well as everything else a copycat show is supposed to have—antiheroes, period setting, a great soundtrack, dead women, stripping women. Yet despite all the cable doohickeys, Wicked City is fundamentally network. The violence is not belabored, everyone is presented sympathetically, and there’s a cop on the case. It’s a noxious but potentially canny mixture, a show about a necrophiliac serial killer you could watch while folding your laundry.

Did I say necrophiliac? Ed Westwick (Gossip Girl) stars as Kent Grainger, a serial killer with impeccable social skills. He seems so normal in his day-to-day life that his neighbors trust him to babysit their children. But at night, he hops in his car, blasts “Dancing With Myself,” and heads down to the Sunset Strip where he prowls for women in bars like the Whiskey A Go Go. He says his name is John, Brent; he pretends to be a real estate agent, an A&R guy; he smoothly offers the women career help repeating the refrain, “I was you once, kill me, I like giving back”—before whisking them up into the hills in his car and stabbing them to death while they give him a blow job. Then he has sex with their corpses. This sounds outrageous—or rather, is outrageous—but it is visually tame, relatively anyway. There’s no blood. The sex happens off screen and is only mentioned when the police examine the body. Cable has set the bar on graphic sex and violence very high.

I don’t need to watch another show about a serial killer, especially a sexy one, ever again, and yet Westwick is inspired casting. “Dangerous” and “alluring” hang over him like strong cologne. Chuck Bass, the character he played for years on Gossip Girl, was also a debauched, sporadically rape-y sociopath with a soft spot for one particular woman, in Wicked City’s case, a nurse named Betty Beaumont (Erika Christensen). And his mastery of the nostril as thespian’s instrument remains unparalleled. He flairs them the way a snake flicks its tongue, with menace, taking the temperature of the room, looking for his prey.

As the show begins, Kent kills a woman and deposits her headless body in a cemetery, attracting the attention of Jack Roth (Jeremy Sisto), a grizzled LAPD veteran, with a complicated personal life. Jack and his partner Paco Contreras (Gabriel Luna), a showboating youngster on the make, soon make contact with Karen McClaren (Taissa Farmiga), an ambitious journalist writing about life on the strip who has unknowingly met  with Kent. By episode’s end Jack, Contreras, Karen, and Jack’s undercover, coke-dealing stripper mistress are hot on Kent’s heels, looking to catch him before he strikes again. (The season is 10 episodes, if you want to know approximately how long the investigation might take.)

But Kent is busy switching up his MO. After his first kill he goes looking for a new victim and meets the aforementioned Betty in a bar. Betty is a nurse and a single mother, the kind of woman who goes out of her way not to hurt spiders, but she’s insecure and, obviously, lacks a spidey-sense. She’s flattered Kent wants to talk to her and lucky that Kent’s perversities do not extend to women with children. On their second date, Betty and Kent are in bed, but Kent can’t get hard. Betty worries that he’s not attracted to her. He responds by tying her up and telling her to lie very still, not to move, not even to breathe. She complies, doing an exceptional impersonation of a corpse. He ejaculates. “That was weird,” Betty says post-coitus, “but kind of amazing.” Kent has found his partner in crime.

Wicked City is both wan and distasteful, not as gruesome and blood-spattered as it could be, but thematically gross and tired nonetheless. And yet I feel obligated to give credit—or discredit—where it is due: In this scene, Wicked City has out-creepied cable. As high as the graphic sex and violence bar has been set, role-playing necrophilia still clears it.