'Wicked City' | Anatomy of a Cancellation and The Rise of Anthology Series

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

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

This brings us to “Wicked City” and the rather envelope-pushing premise that features 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” did not offer any characters to care about, unlike “Bates Motel.” 

In the television landscape’s ever-increasing focus on “grey” characters, “Wicked City” focused on protagonists and antagonists who could not even pass for checkered. It is tough to recruit viewers to check out a show without a single character worth rooting for.

One explanation for why there might have been such a cache of bleak characterizations is that “Wicked City” wasn’t counting on selling viewers on these characters because they were not 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 have cost the series potential viewers who might have been intrigued to know they were investing their time in a series with a beginning, middle, and end storyline that exclusively included these characters. After this season, the series would have switched 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 gives the go-ahead for a “full season” order (normally around ten episodes). With most of those being produced before it airs, it is 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 is a hit or not. Thus, 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, a streaming service could pick it up to continue. The upsides are boundless as the need to hit that once crucial 100-episode mark to secure syndication is becoming increasingly obsolete.

ABC was not 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 like an emphasis on likable characters is dwindling. There is no clear reason as to why that is the fad. Writers might feel less pressure 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 was introduced that were not 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 is not an easy task by any means.

When deciphering “Wicked City’s” exact cause of death, one does not have to look much further than the utter misuse of “Gossip Girl” star Ed Westwick as a throwaway 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. 

Some shows can make you feel uneasy, and “Wicked City” was one of them. “The Fall” is a similarly themed program that does similarly. It has managed to be educational, and that is where “Wicked City” fell shy the most. ABC pulled the plug after three 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 considered. The answer is yes for those wondering if “Wicked City” viewers will get the much talked about closure that anthology series can provide. 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 episodes are currently available to stream on Hulu.