It’s 1982 on the Sunset Strip in LA. 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.
Set in this milieu, ABC’s new serial-killer drama, “Wicked City,” could use a jolt of something, as the first episode, premiering Tuesday at 10 p.m., often comes off as stiff as its initial victim.
The show first introduces us to the killer Kent Grainger. 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. We don’t get a chance to know the character before he is forced into trying to make sociopathy palatable enough to engage with over 10 episodes. 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. The actors are game but almost all of their dialogue is flat and predictable.
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.
One place “Wicked City” does score in its first outing is the soundtrack. The music-clearance budget must be very healthy. Scenes are underscored by era-appropriate hits by, among others, Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, Romeo Void, lots of Billy Idol — a stand-in for whom appears at one point — and a use of Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time” that is a bit on the nose as Kent offs his first victim. Eagle-eyed hair-metal fans will also recognize Ratt frontman Stephen Pearcy as a Whisky bouncer, while a Ratt-like band plays onstage.
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. It could be any old police procedural.
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.
The possibility exists that the stronger members of the cast could make a show with better dialogue work, but one of the dangers of the audience knowing who the killer is at the outset is that it might become quickly tedious waiting for the Sisto and Luna characters to catch up or be consistently set back as the body count grows. 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.
Starring Ed Westwick, Erika Christensen, Jeremy Sisto, Taissa Farmiga, Gabriel Luna, Karolina Wydra, Evan Ross, Anne Winters, Jaime Ray Newman. On ABC, Tuesday, 10-11 p.m.