Scott D. Pierce: Violence against women drives ‘Wicked City’

26 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

A killer time in 1982 LA in ‘Wicked City’.

ABC’s abysmal crime series “Wicked City” (premiering Tuesday) is the last thing Los Angeles needs — more self-reflective nostalgia for its favorite criminal eras, when men were men and dames were dames and you could leave the beheaded bodies of said dames in creative places meant to taunt hard-nosed police detectives who had no access to a DNA database or copious security-cam footage. “Wicked City” is also the last thing a TV viewer needs right now — it’s violent in a dumb, done-before, tediously psychosexual way. Kent Grainger (Ed Westwick) is on the prowl for women in Los Angeles in ‘Wicked City.’ He might have found a partner in crime in Betty Beaumontaine (Erika Christensen), a nurse and single mother with a sadistic twist.(Photo: Eric McCandless, ABC) Your interest and schedule may vary, but I have no time in my life for yet another desperate-to-shock serial killer drama.ABC’s new noir procedural, “Wicked City,” tries way too hard, which is one of the few good things you could say about the show, premiering Tuesday, Oct. 27.In the new ABC drama “Wicked City,” Ed Westwick’s character Kent Galloway is at the heart of a murder investigation that unfolds on the Los Angeles Sunset Strip during the early 1980s. Presumptuously conceived by its producers as an anthology series in which each season will take place in a different murderous decade, “Wicked City” begins with the fictional tale of a slimy-yet-suave serial killer, Kent Grainger (“Gossip Girl’s” Ed Westwick — remember him?), who prowls the Sunset Strip rock clubs in search of victims.

Particularly not one that thinks the best way to grab an audience is to open with the male killer stabbing a woman to death in his car while she’s supplying oral sex, lingering long enough for us to hear her scream and see her blood splatter before moving on to show us the cops examining her now headless corpse. The hair is as high as the voices of the people singing onstage at the famed Whisky a Go Go and the people watching them, the latter having just snorted some powdered confidence in the club restroom. Bret Easton Ellis’ best novel, published in 1991 and adapted into Mary Harron’s even better 2000 film starring Christian Bale, created an archetype: the attractive, successful, debauched yet perversely disciplined young alpha male who also happens to be a sociopathic killer. (I’ll direct anyone who still wants to argue about whether all Bateman’s “murders and executions” actually happened here.) Since the movie’s premiere, we’ve gotten a D12 song called “American Psycho II,” an MMA fighter nicknamed “American Psycho,” and, just this year, a Fall Out Boy album titled American Beauty/American Psycho. It’s the late summer of 1982 (like, omigod), which is significant, I guess, as a moment between the new-wavy MTV explosion and the emergence of hard-rocking hair bands.

The common bond being L.A., Wicked City reminded me a bit of the David Duchovny series Aquarius, which aired over the summer on NBC and has been renewed for a second season. The actor, best known for playing Chuck Bass on “Gossip Girl,” didn’t have to go too far to do research on serial killers since his mother is a psychologist.

In an opening scene that at least features carefully chosen period details, Kent visits the Whiskey-a-Go-Go, where the band Mickey Ratt (later known simply as Ratt) is playing a set. It isn’t long before Kent zeroes in on his latest victim (she’s very “Flashdance”), but before they leave, he uses this thing called a pay phone to make a dedication request to a local rock station (“Feels Like the First Time” by Foreigner). Were we discussing art, or at least an honest attempt to make art — rather than a popular entertainment designed to sell soda and make all involved rich — the critical response might be different. He is likely intended to come off as charismatic but feels more like an oily, obvious operator in the hands of Ed Westwick (“Gossip Girl”), who is in a tough spot since he is revealed almost immediately. While eluding the detectives who are trying to hunt him down, Westwick’s character falls for Betty Beaumontaine, played by Erika Christensen—and the two strike up a dangerous relationship.

It’s not the first time that Westwick’s played half of a scheming onscreen couple, but don’t expect Wicked City’s love story to be Chuck Bass and Blair Waldorf 2.0. But the only thing challenging about Wicked City is the effort it takes to sit through it, and the only thing marginally fresh is its effort to up the perversion ante through a female accomplice who likes to squish spiders in her hands and rip the stitches out of old men. He is assigned the classic tragic back story and a sexual dsyfunction tied to his murderous ways, and draws blood before the opening credits roll. (Those squeamish around the mingling of sex and violence or simply weary of that particularly lurid jumping-off point without deeper context, will likely flee the “City” at this point.) Tracking Grainger are detectives Jack Roth (Jeremy Sisto, “Law & Order”) and his new partner Paco Contreras (Gabriel Luna), a rapacious climber whom Roth despises. In fact, Westwick warns that his latest role is nothing like the lovable yet sinister character that he became famous for playing on Gossip Girl. “They are completely different, and I think people will see that,” Bass told InStyle when we recently caught up with the star over the phone. “They have different motivations, and they carry themselves differently.” So even though Chuck Bass had a dark side—and it often got the best of him—it’s impossible to compare him to creepy Kent Grainger in any way, according to Westwick. “On Gossip Girl, Chuck was a young boy who was trying to figure out his early manhood,” said Westwick. “But this guy is completely different. He is driven by totally different reasons and aversions, so I draw zero comparison.” And that goes for Wicked City as a whole. “It’s very different from Gossip Girl, and from anything else that I have done,” said Westwick.

For Christensen, the role is the complete opposite of the mother and wife she played on “Parenthood.” The “Wicked City” part was one of a variety of roles she was offered after “Parenthood” ended. By episode’s end (ABC only sent the pilot — and that’ll do), Roth and Contreras have enlisted the help of a freelance rock journalist (“American Horror Story’s” Taissa Farmiga as Karen McClaren — stop starin’), asking her to act as bait for the killer. That starts with the ’80s setting, and includes absolutely everything about Jeremy Sisto’s cop character, from his reluctance to take on a new partner to his secret mistress with a secret of her own. Among the other characters are Karen McLaren (Taissa Farmiga, “American Horror Story”), a young journalist who aspires to work for Rolling Stone but currently toils at a sleazy tabloid and becomes embroiled in the case. (When Karen and her paparazzo boss trespass at a crime scene and Roth barks at them, “Don’t give me your Constitution crap!,” it’s hard not to feel bad for Sisto.) Erika Christensen (“Parenthood”) plays a pivotal role as nurse Betty, a seemingly sweet single mom who has some sadistic tendencies that telegraph exactly where her character is going.

What was once a statement about the invisible violence of capitalism as practiced by the rich and powerful financiers who shape the American economy is now a sort of empty juxtaposition of handsomeness, youth, decadence, and evil. Our killer — and this is revealing nothing that hasn’t been shown in the previews — is Kent (Ed Westwick), a man who hates women in general but apparently has a soft spot for mothers. That might not have been entirely played out in 1982, but this sort of thing makes “Wicked City” feel dated in ways that have nothing to do with the period setting. Which brings us to ABC’s Wicked City, premiering Tuesday, a show that couldn’t possibly have been pitched without some comparison to American Psycho. It’s none other than “Parenthood’s” Erika Christensen as Betty Beaumontaine (oof, these character names — just stop), a divorced mom and secretly sadistic hospital nurse who is looking for a nice guy.

Right away, you get the sense that she’s all in for whatever this is with Kent,” Christensen says. “I don’t actually know, but I’m betting she goes down the rabbit hole with him. Not only does it follow a pretty-boy serial killer who trolls trendy clubs for girls to sweet-talk into his car — where he calmly stabs them to death — but it’s also set in the 1980s and pulses with the cashed-up optimism of that era. When Kent figures out that Betty likes being tied up and threatened with a butcher knife — and that she’s been intentionally inflicting pain on the patients in her care — he sees an opportunity to collaborate. Given that the show is trying sell the real or perceived glamour, sleaze, decadence, and danger of this moment in time, the overall lukewarm feeling of the look and dialogue is disappointing. Former “Law & Order” star Jeremy Sisto returns to a detective role with “Wicked City.” What he learned from people who lived through that time was that having fun was the object of most people’s attention.

NBC’s somewhat similar Aquarius also stumbled over its homicidal subject, but at least it made interesting use of its ’60s setting and boasted a fine central performance by David Duchovny. Style and editing can mask a lot of mediocrity in prime-time dramas these days — which is why “Wicked City” can be rather slick-looking at times — but it doesn’t take long to sniff out the fact that something’s dead in here.

To their credit, the producers don’t go overboard on wardrobe and hair in terms of ’80s caricature, but they make sure to linger on the lack of technology, with rotary phones, pay phones, pagers, and brand-new computers for the cops all figuring into the story. We’re kind of the Romeo and Juliet of serial killers—and there’s a little bit of Bonnie-and-Clyde in that for sure.” “I went out and killed everybody [laughs]. ABC evidently views all this vintage ’80s excess as Wicked City‘s big selling point, because it went so far as to sponsor a Rolling Stone list of the 50 greatest hair metal albums. And, great soundtrack or no, there isn’t a lot in the pilot that encourages sticking around to see if “Wicked City” overcomes that potential hurdle.

The concept of linked psycho killers could be workable on paper, but to make it work in the series, there should be a greater sense of suspense than there is. Bundy was a great reference for me because he had the ability to charm and control and manipulate even the most intelligent people—he represented himself in court. Kent’s search for victims pulls in Karen McClaren (Taissa Farmiga), a green reporter for the fictional LA Notorious who’s searching for her big break but looks too much like Brooklyn circa 2015 to fit in with the crimped and coiffed rock chicks of LA circa 1982. So anything that goes to the camp place, we are stepping away from,” Harris says. “Do we want to talk about MTV as this thing that may or may not work and who will watch music videos? We also know that, apparently, every young woman who walks into the Whisky in 1982 is blinded by dreams of stardom and is dumb and trusting as a box of rocks.

But Jack is also something of a maverick: he flabbergasts everyone by announcing in a press conference that they’ve caught the culprit but aren’t going to release details about him because, “No one cares about this killer.” This is a brilliant tactic, see, to lure their attention-seeking psychopath into the light. Unfortunately, at least in its first hour, the show doesn’t go much deeper than that. may borrow superficial elements from American Psycho, but instead of biting satire, it offers only warmed-over references and pop-psychology clichés: Kent has “mommy issues,” he’s desperate for attention, he detaches immediately if a woman disappoints him, he can’t perform sexually unless his partner’s somehow incapacitated. The show has plenty going for it, but none of the above seems novel or compelling enough to hold viewers’ attention for more than a few episodes, especially in the midst of such a crowded fall TV season.

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