Over the past few years, nerd fandom has become the undeniable victor of the culture war. With two films based on fantasy video games coming out in the next year, not to mention six comic book films and a half dozen more Star Wars films to come, fantasy and science fiction are doing quite well. But that success doesn’t necessarily stretch to, say, the failed-film-turned-television-show that is Shadowhunters.
The source material is a book series about a race of part-angel/part-humans known as the Nephilim (taken from Genesis 6), or, more casually, Shadowhunters, who hunt demons and keep the mortal world safe. It includes many of the tropes common to urban fantasy – a world invisible to ordinary humans, monsters disguised as everyday people, and a teenager who’s introduced to this world and told they are someone incredibly special to this newly found world. At its most basic level, the plot isn’t anything spectacularly original, especially to the world of Young Adult fiction, although the involvement of demons and angels does make possible the exploration of morality in the context of theology, which not many shows do. Of course, something being possible and it being likely are two different things. And the show wastes little time showing that it has no intention of being anything different than every other YA fantasy series on ABC Family or The CW.
Now to be fair, television is probably a better suited medium for this franchise. The main series itself is now six books long, not including a prequel series set in the nineteenth century. Very few film series, demons or no demons, can hold our attention for that long. But the lower budget and shallow nature of the network that picked up the show are readily apparent in the series’ first episode. Much of the acting is clumsy and forced, playing like a decent fan fiction film, rather than an anticipated television series on a major network. Kat McNamara (Clary) has her moments – most of them when she’s crying – but also comes across as prissy and tender, rather than a demon hunter in the making. The actors playing Jace, Alec, and Isabel (Dominic Sherwood, Matthew Daddario, and Emeraude Toubia, respectively) are admittedly a pleasant surprise, particularly the first of those three. In fact, if we are going to make comparisons to the film, these casting choices are likely superior to those of the film.
But even when the show’s cast brings a good performance, the dialogue and plot development is choppy and awkward. The show more hacks its way through the plot with a machete than anything, and seems to think the audience incapable of contemplating on any particular element for longer than five seconds. It’s much like sitting through the cringe-worthy dialogue of Attack of the Clones, without the Yoda flips to give it redeeming value. Any redeeming value in the plot itself is further ruined in how the show prematurely spoils what could be great plot twists, for seemingly no other reason than cramming in more information and more filler dialogue on an already over-cramped pilot episode.
Admittedly, the second episode is better paced than the first, so I will concede that this could be a problem that will improve over time. The one thing that does give me a decent amount of hope for the show is that the direction and writing seem more of a problem than the acting – of what problems the show does have, the casting choices certainly don’t top the list. But unless that is changed, the show is ultimately doomed to fail, which will effectively bury this franchise which so many fans have longed to see the light of day.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this is that we know it can be done. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for instance, was a fantasy show with little production value (in terms of effects), and was originally a film, but relegated to the small screen. And yet the clever writing of Joss Whedon, along with an often under appreciated cast made the show a cult hit (I’m not a fan of the show personally, but these are practically undeniable facts, even by those who don’t enjoy the show).
The lack of a special effects budget is not what is killing this show. Granted, the effects aren’t very good, but that’s hardly a problem in the grand scheme of things. But until the showrunners figure out how to progress at an evenhanded and methodical pace, rather than effectively cramming as though for a test the next day, what good moments the cast does have will be drowned out and diluted by poor direction. Which, in turn, makes impossible the exposition and exploration into theology and theism that a show with angels and demons at the forefront could theoretically make possible.
Consensus: 5/10. The cast has its moments, particularly the Shadowhunter trio, but ultimately feels like a mediocre fan fiction series, due to forced dialogue and choppy direction.