The August 1982 setting may be the show’s best feature, but it also feels like a facade in comparison to the end-all, be-all of televised period dramas like Mad Men. It’s too proud of itself in referencing the era with constant mentions of pagers and an overbearingly retro score (Soft Cell lovers, have I got the show for you!) that it becomes more off-putting than immersive. It also doesn’t help that the show’s rote exposition and dialogue never spark with an 80’s edge to them, mirroring more the cheesily classic cop procedurals from that era than the era itself.
Maybe the biggest initial hurdle to overcome watching Wicked City is its grim tone. That grimness is obviously appropriate to the subject matter, but there’s just no way of getting around the issue – it’s just no fun to watch. There’s no snap to the characters or dialogue or enough panache in the set dressing to distract from the dour cloud, and once Kent begins seducing the already questionably sadistic Betty (I’ve never felt sorry for a spider in my life, so there’s one accomplishment the Wicked City writers’ room can rally behind) you feel no release or tension from the actions on screen.
And even when the show appears to be delving into that wickedness, it frequently pulls back. This occurs most notably in one of the tamest and lamest sex scenes I’ve seen on cable, which rings especially dull given the importance it has in establishing the biggest relationship on the show. I’m not asking for Cinemax on a Saturday night here, but if you’re going to tie up Erika Christensen on a bed post, do something more with her than make Ed Westwick sniff her for a few minutes and have both act like it was anything more.
In the end, Wicked City‘s multiple threads – the cop’s investigation, Kent’s murderous cause, Karen’s sleuthing – are just so individually uninteresting, that they accumulate into a premiere that is far more vanilla than a show with such a bold title should have been. There are potential bright spots in how creator Steven Baigelman will handle the murderous partnership of Kent and Betty in the next nine episodes, but the show’s inept edginess and dull tone resoundingly guarantee that it won’t exactly be worthwhile.
Earnest but hollow, ABC's Wicked City attempts to recreate the dazzle and danger of the Sunset Strip in 1982, but an unpleasant tone and boring characters suggest the new series won't have much legs.