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Review: ABC’s ‘Wicked City’ adds little fresh blood to serial-killer story

Jeremy Sisto, Anne Winters and Jaime Ray Newman in the pilot episode of "Wicked City."

Jeremy Sisto, Anne Winters and Jaime Ray Newman in the pilot episode of “Wicked City.”

(Kelsey McNeal / ABC)
Los Angeles Times Television Critic

“Wicked City,” which premieres Tuesday on ABC, is an anthology crime series set in the nasty world of Los Angeles. First up: serial killers on the Sunset Strip!

Created by Steven Baigelman, who wrote Don Cheadle’s forthcoming Miles Davis biopic, it’s a broadcast-network, junior-grade take on “True Detective,” with certain resemblances to another rock-trimmed, death-filled, city-of-night Southland period piece, NBC’s Manson-themed “Aquarius.”

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Set in 1982, the premiere season stars Ed Westwick as a smooth-talking nonentity named Kent Grainger who likes to stab women as they perform oral sex on him. (Westwick was Chuck Bass on “Gossip Girl” and creepier there than here.) Erika Christensen, from “Parenthood,” is Betty, the nurse with a taste for giving pain whom Grainger beckons to enter his web of sin.

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The time frame and certain specific details suggest that the story is inspired by real-life killers Douglas Daniel Clark and Carol M. Bundy, who were given the sobriquet “Sunset Strip Killers” because they preyed on prostitutes and runaways picked up off Sunset Boulevard and because “Sunset Strip Killers” looked good in print. But they weren’t hanging out at the Whisky a Go Go or Le Dome, as here. Even a brief reading of their career would lead one to think, or hope, that ABC’s version will be a more than somewhat sanitized take on the real thing; certainly it is a much-glamorized one.

I would be happy enough never to see another serial-killer story on television, but people do seem to like them and have for a long time: “Sweeney Todd” made his first appearance in print in 1846. Still, TV has done them to death.

Barring the odd ambitious oddity like “Hannibal,” about which an intelligent conversation may at least be held, they are just a shortcut to narrative tension, a way to put women in peril and jerk dubious thrills from the proximity of sex and death, here set against a dark-pop soundtrack and a romanticized, sometimes anachronistic past. (“The Sunset Strip is insane!” cries Taissa Farmiga’s ambitious journalist, aiming for a piece in Rolling Stone.).

Apart from some subtle work by Christensen, the series doesn’t have much of interest to offer or fresh to say. From the sexual performance issues of its central psycho; to the antagonistic relationship of Det. Jack Roth (Jeremy Sisto) and his new, unasked-for partner (Gabriel Luna); to Roth’s inevitably compromised if not corrupted character; to the old game of cat and mouse.

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“He’s taunting us,” it’s said of Grainger, and also, “He’s playing with us.” We have been here before and before and before.

I am admittedly writing this off a single episode, and it’s possible that when Grainger says he knows what it’s like to be abandoned by a father, he is lying, and that when Roth guesses that the killer has “anger issues toward women, which probably means his mommy didn’t give him enough attention,” he is wrong — that it will be different this time. But probably not.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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‘Wicked City’

Where: ABC

When: 10 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence)

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