Let's Talk About: 'Wicked City' -- The Anatomy of a Cancellation and The Rise of Anthology Series

Just based on the premise, it sounded dead on arrival but that didn't stop ABC from giving “Wicked City” the green light. It's understandable that network television is more willing than ever to take chances on programming that years ago would've never made it past a pitch meeting. They're competing against cable and streaming networks that have few content limits they’re not willing to venture past.

Even if those limits are a bit like a glass ceiling. There's only so far an audience is willing to let you push things and the creators of these edgy series know that. It's like manners at a dinner table. People can theoretically behave however they'd wish. It's the unspoken rules that keep them within certain boundaries. Likewise there is an etiquette show's feel obliged to abide by for mainstream viewers.

This brings us to "Wicked City" and the rather envelope pushing premise that featured a serial killer in a leading role, his psychopathic cohort as his love interest and a morally duplicitous cop as their foil. Right off the bat "Wicked City" didn't offer up any characters to really care about. In the television landscape's ever increasing focus on "grey" characters, "Wicked City" chose to focus on protagonists and antagonists that couldn't even pass for checkered. It's tough to recruit viewers to check out a show without a single character worth rooting for.

One explanation for why there might've been such a cache of bleak characterizations is that "Wicked City" wasn't counting on selling viewers on these characters because they weren't central to the long-term life of the series. These characters were temporary. ABC planned "Wicked City" as an anthology series, though it was never strongly promoted as one.

That lack of knowledge could’ve cost the series potential viewers who might have been intrigued to know they were investing their time in a series that would have a beginning, middle and end storyline that exclusively included these characters. After this season, the series would've switch gears a la "True Detective" or "American Horror Story" and start over with a completely new cast, setting etc.

The good news with the anthology set-up for TV fans is that they will typically get a complete story because what an anthology basically equals is a renewable mini-series. The network typically goes in giving the go-ahead for a "full season" order (which is normally around 10 episodes) and with most of those being produced before it goes on the air, it's in the network's interest to go ahead and air them, despite whatever happens with the ratings.

The upside for the networks is they only have to invest in producing half of a regular series season before finding out whether it's a hit or not, satisfying audiences without cancelling a series they "didn't give a chance" and having a finished product they can market to streaming services. Should the show find an audience there, the streaming service could potentially pick it up to continue. The upsides are boundless and the need to hit that once crucial 100 episode mark to secure syndication is growing more and more obsolete by the year.

ABC wasn’t the only major network gambling with an anthology this season. FOX similarly followed suit with its offensive new series “Scream Queens”. Like “Wicked City”, “Scream Queens” features a cast of characters so unlikable it was downright unwatchable. With the boom of anthology series it seems an emphasis on likeable characters is dwindling. There’s no clear reason as to why that’s the fad. Writers might be feeling less pressure in general to sell viewers on a character, given their short term shelf life.

Giving a character the breathing room to be human worked out to fascinating effect in the first season of “True Detective”, a spellbinding character study that sat back and let lightning in a bottle strike, uninterrupted. All of that magic faded away in its widely criticized second season, where an onslaught of self-loathing characters were introduced that weren’t easy to care for or about.

Where the characters from its first season endeared themselves to viewers with their raw and unbridled personalities; the second season’s drab downers elicited a lot of eye rolls. The biggest lesson to be learned from the fall from grace of "True Detective" is what happens when a series has to rebuild from scratch and try to top an impossible to beat precursor season. Recapturing what made a series so intoxicating in its initial run isn’t an easy task by any means.

When it comes to deciphering “Wicked City’s” exact cause of death, one doesn’t have to look much further than the utter misuse of “Gossip Girl” star Ed Westwick as a throw away villain with nowhere to go. In his first starring role since the hit CW sudser went off the air, Westwick was saddled with the unenviable task of trying to garner interest in a character that was simply despicable. Hopefully ABC or another network will make room for him on the roster of a show that will better utilize his talents. 

There are shows that can make you feel uneasy and “Wicked City” was one of them. “The Fall” is a similarly themed program that does similarly but has managed to also be educational and that is where “Wicked City” fell shy the most. ABC pulled the plug after 3 episodes, claiming the first casualty of the 2015/16 season. It was a wise choice.

Incredibly anemic ratings pushed the rapid response time in an era where new series are being given more leeway than ever before as delayed DVR ratings are taken into account. For those wondering if “Wicked City” viewers will get the much talked about closure that anthology series can provide, the answer is yes. The remainder of the series’ 8 episode run will be available to stream on ABC’s website and the final episode will feature a wrapped up ending. All is well that ends well?

UPDATE: The last run of episodes are currently available to stream on Hulu. As of now, the eighth and final episode has yet to join them.

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