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ABC’s Wicked City has a serious woman problem

Ed Westwick and Erika Christensen in Wicked City.
Ed Westwick and Erika Christensen in Wicked City.
Tanya Pai heads the standards team at Vox, focusing on copy editing, fact-checking, inclusive language and sourcing, and newsroom standards and ethics issues. She’s also a founder of Language, Please, a free resource for journalists and storytellers focused on thoughtful language use.

ABC's latest drama, Wicked City, offers a slick, sexy tale of mayhem, murder, and teased hair set in 1980s Los Angeles. Or so the network no doubt hoped.

Instead, it's landed on something that feels simultaneously overboiled and underbaked, a pastiche of other works that plays a bit like an extended commercial for Now That's What I Call Music, 1980s edition. But with murder.



Ed Westwick (Gossip Girl's Chuck Bass) plays a suave serial killer named Kent Grainger, with a taste for fame and a fetish for dead women. Jeremy Sisto (Suburgatory) is Detective Jack Roth, who's obsessed with stopping Kent, with the help of his media-pandering new partner Paco (Gabriel Luna) and ambitious young reporter Karen (Taissa Farmiga).

We wouldn't recommend you watch it — but if you're curious, or just want to save yourself an hour, we've catalogued all the worst things about the show.

The cast is sorely underused

Wicked City boasts a solid cast — Sisto, Farmiga, Erika Christensen, etc. — but it gives them precious little to work with. Sisto is the world-weary cop with the chip on his shoulder and secret sins he hides from his nuclear family, while Farmiga is saddled with that blandest of roles, the wide-eyed aspiring music journalist.

As for Westwick: I say this as someone who willingly watched every single episode of Gossip Girl, but Kent is not compelling enough to center a show on.

Some of it is the lazy writing (he's a serial killer with daddy issues? how novel), but Westwick often seems to be concentrating more on keeping up his American accent than on giving his character the kind of twisted inner life that would make him disturbing yet compelling to watch, rather than just kinda gross. (Example: His "receiving fellatio in a car" face and "stabbing a woman to death" face are exactly the same.)

girl standing in crowd at concert
Karen finds herself stranded in a sea of strangers and bad dialogue.

Betty, Christensen's single mother/nurse character with a barely concealed dark side, shows flashes of originality (a scene where she methodically rips out an elderly patient's stitches as he moans in pain is relatively creepy), but they're swallowed up by the pilot's truly unfortunate habit of treating all of its women as objects.

Which brings me to...

The treatment of women is appalling

Man and woman kissing in living room
This is maybe the only nice thing that happens to a woman all episode.

In the first episode alone, various women characters are: coerced into blow jobs in exchange for favors, brutally murdered while giving said blow jobs, used as serial killer bait, cheated on, cheated with, called strippers, screwed in the shower, screwed after being killed, and screwed while being forced to basically play dead for the pleasure of a male character. (The fact that being told not to breathe or move or otherwise show any signs of being a living person brings on a rockin' orgasm for that woman just compounds the ick factor.)

Yes, I realize Wicked City is set in 1982 — but the world was also deep into second-wave feminism, with Margaret Thatcher in office in the UK and America just two years away from Geraldine Ferraro becoming the first woman vice presidential nominee. Surely the show's (very much present-day) writers could afford to let its women do a little more than serve as props for the men.

Everything feels like a repeat of something else

Wicked City thus far mostly feels like a reheated garden-variety procedural sprinkled with self-consciously '80s details (characters snort cocaine in the bathroom, and the script anvils in terms like "bitchin' and "pad").

Kent uses the identical pickup line on all his victims — and yes, it includes the phrase "kill me." Even his crimes are copycat; he rips off the methods and dumping ground of the Hillside Strangler (a real LA case from the late '70s, though the show refers to the murderer in the singular, while two cousins were responsible for the actual killings).

Our protagonist bedding his mistress and then being revealed to have a wife and kid? Well, hello, Mad Men pilot. A mysterious box containing the head of a blonde woman? Seven, party of one. Two cops with opposite methods and an acrimonious relationship learning to work together? Step on up, every cop series ever!

So many shows have done what this show is trying to do before — and so much better — that it's a little hard at this point to see what Wicked City is bringing to the already very crowded table.

Except for Fake Billy Idol

Oh, yeah. There is that.

Billy Idol onstage at concert
Billy Idol is in this show! Because it's set in the '80s! Get it?

Wicked City airs Tuesdays at 10 pm on ABC. The pilot is available on and Hulu.

Correction: Corrected to note that the real-life Hillside Stranglers were cousins.