‘Wicked City’: murder most foul, acting most riveting, morality most questionable

In most cases, television networks provide to critics a copy of the premiere episode of a new series in advance of its airing with enough time for the critic to write about the show so readers can know what to expect by the time the episode airs. Such wasn’t the case with ABC, which held the debut of “Wicked City” quite close to its vest. As a result, CNS freelance reviewer Maria Macina barely had time to digest the premiere installment for its aesthetic and moral qualities, let alone write about it. Here is Macina’s review in full.

Every viewer must be well aware by now of the tremendous impact the popularity of cable television has had on the networks.

The steady rise of their rivals over the past few decades has not only lowered these older outlets’ prestige by diminishing their share of industry awards. Far more vitally, it has also deprived them of ratings and, therefore, of advertising-based revenue.

As if such a long-term trend weren’t challenging enough, more recent years have seen the advent of a fresh threat to the networks, one that has gathered momentum far more quickly than anyone would have guessed. Websites such as Hulu, Amazon and Netflix — not one of which even existed 25 years ago — are now thriving sources of original programming.

The seemingly exponential growth of viewing choices — some of them of such high quality that many informed observers now regard this as a second “golden age” of television — confronts the networks with ever greater difficulties as they search for loyal customers to sustain their business model.

One obvious response to this situation is to try to shift the accepted, but already far too broad, boundaries of taste and morality.

wickecitytrythisoneJust as foreign movies were once seen as offering both racier and more thoughtful content than Hollywood films, so nowadays the networks seem envious of the ability of cable and Web-based shows to cross controversial lines they themselves have traditionally been forced to respect — or at least skirt.

All the more so, since such envelope-pushing has often won both a wide audience and critical favor.

The success of Fox’s drama “Empire,” which began airing in January, provides just one example of the apparent benefits of loosening network standards still further. Now ABC seems intent on following Fox’s lead as it introduces its new police procedural, “Wicked City.”

Based on the show’s Oct. 27 premiere — the series is slated to run 10-11 p.m. EST Tuesdays — the phrase “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” pretty well sums up what audiences can expect to encounter. More specifically, in its opening episode alone this serial-killer themed drama showcased, along with the violence inherent in its subject matter, adultery, oral sex, narcotics use and necrophilia.

Set in 1982 Los Angeles, the initial storyline of “Wicked City” focuses on deeply flawed LAPD Detective Jack Roth (Jeremy Sisto) as he struggles to stop a prolific murderer’s bloody rampage. His adversary, Kent Grainger — played to perfection by Ed Westwick — is an attractive psychopath who targets the young women of the Sunset Strip.

Grainger preys on his victims by pretending to be the VIP of their dreams, whether that’s a talent agent, a movie producer or a real estate mogul. Having lured his latest quarry into captivity, he then decapitates her to the tune of a song he has asked to have dedicated to her on the radio.

Grainger meets his match, however, when one of his potential victims becomes instead his homicidal ally.

Betty Beaumontaine (Erika Christensen), a nurse and single mother with what turns out to have a rather terrifying dark side, quickly becomes the Bonnie to Grainger’s Clyde. The pilot leaves us wondering just what black magic this dastardly duo might conjure up together as the series proceeds.

Needless to say, this is not a program for younger viewers or for any but the hardiest of their adult counterparts. Those willing to engage with its ensemble of morally vacant characters and endure their parade of seamy behavior, however, will find at least partial compensation in the form of a strong cast playing a variety of complexly drawn characters. And for those of a certain age, twinges of nostalgia will be set off by a soundtrack full of familiar tunes from the 1980s.

For most, however, such aesthetic redress will seem all too slight when weighed against the show’s flagrant ethical trespasses.

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