For a while now, people have been talking about how TV has been going through a creative rebirth. Series like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead have got people talking like nothing since Lost or early Desperate Housewives. Major Hollywood actors from Matthew McConaughey to Vince Vaughn and Sharon Stone to Halle Berry have taken leading roles on the small-screen for the first time in their careers.
There's a caveat, though. Almost all of the good stuff is happening on cable, or streaming sites like Netflix and Amazon. The big five networks (CW aside, whose new focus on superhero series like Arrow and The Flash has proved genius) are struggling to attract writers with any imagination, meaning each Fall brings a bunch of new shows which are, with just a few exceptions, off air by Spring, reduced to a footnote in history and remembered by nobody.
Fair to say, then, that ABC's new detective series Wicket City, starring Ed Westwick of Gossip Girl and Jeremy Cisco, has its work cut out if it wants to see the season through. Set in 1982 on West Hollywood's notorious Sunset Strip, the show has ambitions of channeling Almost Famous, and as in that film the protagonist of this series, Karen McClaren (Taissa Farmiga), dreams of writing for Rolling Stone.
Wicked City complicates matters by throwing in a murder mystery, which is not really a mystery at all, given that we know almost from the beginning who the murderer is - charming Strip regular Kent Grainger (Gossip Girl's Ed Westwick). The real mystery is how long he'll get away with it (and whether or not we want him to...).
There are problems with this show, pretty big ones. For one thing, the soundtrack crashes over every single scene with all the subtlety of a rhino trampling through LA banging a drum. A very, very loud drum. It's horribly distracting. For another, the detective elements, focused on Jack Roth (Jeremy Cisco) and his new partner, are loaded with cliches. At one point, Roth tells his assigned partner Paco (Gabriel Luna), "Nobody wants you here! You know that, right?" Presumably we're meant to think Paco is a jerk, but actually Jack is the one who comes across badly.
Jeremy Cisco has made a solid career out of channeling the boy-ish charm he put to such good use on the '90s classic Clueless, but he feels miscast here, impossible to take seriously as a cop, and a buddy cop vibe homaging Miami Vice would be much more entertaining than the relationship established between these two men.
But there's also a lot of fun to be had in this uneven first episode. Farmiga brings her usual wide-eyed charm to the role of Karen, who seems talented and driven but horribly susceptible to manipulation as she attempts to make a name for herself. She is, however, completely underused, appearing in three or four scenes despite being a far more relatable character than the irritable cop or the serial killer. Going forward, a bigger dose of Karen McClaren (was the porn star name intentional?) would do this series plenty of good.
The real genius of Wicked City, though, is the casting of Westwick as the serial killer tormenting the Strip. The Gossip Girl actor, both absurdly handsome and slightly detached, gets to have some fun here playing a natural manipulator whose attention is so prized by women that chances for him to get his kicks come almost too easily. Kent's partnership with Betty (Erika Christensen), a nurse with sadistic tendencies whom he initially has designs to kill, is inspired, and the sex scene in which she holds her breath for a freakishly long time is brilliantly tense. As Betty exhales afterwards: "That was weird... but kind of amazing."
Which seems like a fairly apt descriptor for this show. No, it's not the best-written series on TV (or even on ABC), and yes, it is determined to give the viewer a pounding headache, but there's enough in the pilot to suggest something more defined and more interested down the line. The arc of the season seems to be a kind of cat and mouse game between Kent, aided by Betty, and Karen, a dynamic with shades of the BBC's excellent serial killer thriller The Fall (with Jamie Dornan and Gillian Anderson). Wicked City won't turn out that well - and given the low ratings, it probably won't even get the chance - but those in search of something fun and sexy to watch on a Tuesday night could do far worse than this.
Will you be watching Wicked City as season 1 plays out? What were your thoughts on the pilot? Leave a comment below.