By now, American Psycho has become cultural shorthand for a certain kind of character. Bret Easton Ellis’ best novel, published in 1991 and adapted into Mary Harron’s even better 2000 film starring Christian Bale, created an archetype: the attractive, successful, debauched yet perversely disciplined young alpha male who also happens to be a sociopathic killer. (I’ll direct anyone who still wants to argue about whether all Bateman’s “murders and executions” actually happened here.)
Since the movie’s premiere, we’ve gotten a D12 song called “American Psycho II,” an MMA fighter nicknamed “American Psycho,” and, just this year, a Fall Out Boy album titled American Beauty/American Psycho. Another famous pop-culture serial killer, Dexter‘s Dexter Morgan, uses the alias “Dr. Patrick Bateman,” stealing the name of Ellis’ protagonist. Kanye West set part of his music video for “Love Lockdown” in Bateman’s apartment. And a recent episode of Quantico included an American Psycho joke aimed at a privileged, good-looking FBI recruit.
This is all a testament to how thoroughly the book, the film, and the character at the center of both have penetrated our culture. But it’s also evidence of how watered-down the increasingly common Patrick Bateman archetype has become over the years. What was once a statement about the invisible violence of capitalism as practiced by the rich and powerful financiers who shape the American economy is now a sort of empty juxtaposition of handsomeness, youth, decadence, and evil.
Which brings us to ABC’s Wicked City, premiering Tuesday, a show that couldn’t possibly have been pitched without some comparison to American Psycho. Not only does it follow a pretty-boy serial killer who trolls trendy clubs for girls to sweet-talk into his car — where he calmly stabs them to death — but it’s also set in the 1980s and pulses with the cashed-up optimism of that era. The playground for psycho Kent Grainger (Ed Westwick, who played Gossip Girl‘s most Gossip Girl character, Chuck Bass) is the Sunset Strip; period details are relentless, and obvious: big hair! Cocaine! The word “bitchin'”! Alternative weeklies, remember those?!
The music cues, though fun, are exactly what you’d expect: in the pilot, we get “Tainted Love,” “Lust for Life,” “Never Say Never,” Joan Jett’s cover of “Crimson and Clover,” and “Dancing With Myself,” foreshadowing a Billy Idol performance at the Whisky a Go Go. ABC evidently views all this vintage ’80s excess as Wicked City‘s big selling point, because it went so far as to sponsor a Rolling Stone list of the 50 greatest hair metal albums.
Erika Christensen and Ed Westwick in ‘Wicked City.’ (ABC)
For all its padding, the show doesn’t scrimp on story or characters. Kent’s search for victims pulls in Karen McClaren (Taissa Farmiga), a green reporter for the fictional LA Notorious who’s searching for her big break but looks too much like Brooklyn circa 2015 to fit in with the crimped and coiffed rock chicks of LA circa 1982. Later, he meets Betty Beaumontaine (Erika Christensen), a sweet nurse and single mom who is surprisingly tolerant of his Marquis de Sade quotes and Marquis de Sade-lite bedroom behavior and — the pilot and the show’s press materials suggest — might just have what it takes to become his partner in crime. Both narrowly escape Kent’s knife, and both are fully caught in his web of violence by the end of Wicked City‘s first hour.
On the other side of the law, there are the detectives investigating Kent’s murders. Jack Roth (Jeremy Sisto) is a “good cop” — and we know it because his drug-dealing, Strip denizen girlfriend (Karolina Wydra) tells him so. (In a touch that seems straight out of the Mad Men pilot, we find out later that he’s also got a wife and kid.) He’s got a new partner, Paco Contreras (Gabriel Luna), who he doesn’t trust because Paco’s self-serving ambition has already landed some of Jack’s colleagues in trouble. But Jack is also something of a maverick: he flabbergasts everyone by announcing in a press conference that they’ve caught the culprit but aren’t going to release details about him because, “No one cares about this killer.”
This is a brilliant tactic, see, to lure their attention-seeking psychopath into the light. Not only does it work, but it brings Karen into contact with the cops. Presumably, we’re going to see a lot of shifting allegiances and near misses as police, journalists, and psycho killers all go after the thing they want most — glory, fame, blood, etc. This is the decade of outsize ambitions and flexible morals, after all!
Jeremy Sisto in ‘Wicked City.’ (HBO)
There’s plenty of potential for fun in this premise, from the ’80s sleaze and cheese, to dark characters who range from antiheroes to villains, to Kent’s various prurient pursuits. Wicked City also has the advantages of being fast-paced and well cast; Christensen has the right mix of softness and edge for a character who promises to be a bit of a mystery, it takes an actor of Sisto’s subtlety to bring any sort of depth to the show’s good cop with a dark side, and anyone who watched Gossip Girl could tell you that Westwick is a smart choice to play a sociopathic lothario.
Unfortunately, at least in its first hour, the show doesn’t go much deeper than that. Wicked City may borrow superficial elements from American Psycho, but instead of biting satire, it offers only warmed-over references and pop-psychology clichés: Kent has “mommy issues,” he’s desperate for attention, he detaches immediately if a woman disappoints him, he can’t perform sexually unless his partner’s somehow incapacitated. The show has plenty going for it, but none of the above seems novel or compelling enough to hold viewers’ attention for more than a few episodes, especially in the midst of such a crowded fall TV season.
If Kent does indeed let Betty into his homicidal world and the writers mine the relationship between a serial killer and his soul mate for deeper insights into both characters, this fun yet underwritten show has the potential to become something more than a lobotomized Ellis riff. If not, Wicked City could be just as doomed as any given girl who crosses Kent’s path.