Review: Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments (Freeform, 2016 – )
A television adaptation of an urban fantasy, paranormal romance, YA series that matches ropey dialogue and uneven storytelling with some dubious production decisions and awkward action. It wants to be the next Buffy, but lacks the heart, wit and self-awareness to do so.
Time to be upfront and honest about this. I am clearly not the target demographic for this adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series. Just as I wasn’t the target audience for the books when I read the first few books and could not get into them. Ditto for the film version in 2013 which I watched and disliked. I didn’t like the story, the characters or the world. So this television show was going to have an uphill battle to turn me into a fan. On the other hand, I watched the first two episodes with very low expectations, and was disappointed to find that it didn’t even clear those. So feel free to dismiss my thoughts on the show as coming from someone who will never ‘get’ this series, but I am a fan of fantasy literature, film and television, and I hate it when things are done badly.
Some general remarks first. Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments is a live action television adaptation of Clare’s six book series, starting with City of Bones (2007). The story initially revolves around Clary Fray (Katherine McNamara), a young teenage New Yorker, whose mother Jocelyn (Maxim Roy) disappears, apparently kidnapped, a discovery that she is a Nephilim (a supernatural race descended from an angel) and the world she lives in is part of a wider supernatural world of demons, warlocks, werewolves, and the extremely pretty, and yet horrendously understaffed, people who hunt them. There are secret societies, ancient prophecies, monsters and villains, and magical artefacts a plenty. She meets up with a few other teenage demonhunters (the aforementioned Shadowhunters) and sets off on a quest to recover her lost memories, rescue her mother, and embrace her destiny to save the world, all while navigating her increasingly complex love life.
There are a couple of love triangles, some forbidden love, and lots of long, lingering looks. There are some cool magical abilities, which may or may not be read as tattooing or self-harming depending on your perspective. It grapples with issues of teenage angst, feelings of alienation, evil/neglectful parents, and the allure of being a teenage rebel. So in many respects it follows the form of a typical YA paranormal romance. So far, so Buffy.
I try to begin with some positives so that I am not simply laying on the negative criticism, so let’s focus on that. The show has made a couple of changes to the original story which are actually fairly positive. For a start the principals have been aged slightly to the 18-20s mark instead of being in their mid-teens. Not much of a change, but it makes the story a tiny bit more believable and easier to watch. The coming-of-age narrative is still possible, the characters are still young, and it doesn’t really change the fundamentals of the original source material. So as far as changes go, that is actually a pretty good one.
The character of Luke (Isaiah Mustafa) has been made into a cop and is not a white character anymore. Again, this is a pretty positive thing for the show. It makes the cast slightly more diverse instead of a sea of pale, white faces, and it gives Luke’s character something to do in the episodes. It brings a new element to the story of the supernatural/real world conflict and the overlapping of two realities. Plus, bringing in the New York City police department angle attempts to ground the narrative and the conflict and bring it some much needed believability.
The main cast of actors playing Clary, Jace (Dominic Sherwood), Simon (Alberto Rosende), Alec (Daddario) and Isabelle (Emeraude Toubia) are all very pretty young things who look the part of the characters they are playing. The protagonist Clary is pale with bright red hair. New to this supernatural world but blessed with extraordinary gifts she is meant to act as the audience POV. McNamara plays her with energy, but there is little substance there yet. Jace, the strong, silent love interest, is pale with unconvincing peroxide blonde hair and cheekbones you could cut glass with. Tall, blonde and definitely not Spike. Unfortunately he displays almost no sense of humour, and those few lines that could be delivered that way fall flat. I get that he is meant to be broody and alluring, but without a reader’s active imagination to spin depth of character out of nothing, Jace is presented as cold, hollow and generally obnoxious rather than mysterious, broody and wounded.
Alec and Simon are pale with dark hair doing the brooding/nerd-chic thing respectively. Linked by unrequited love storylines and the fact that they are a little superfluous to what is actually happening they are not particularly engaging on screen, with Alec playing it ironically ‘straight’ and Simon lacking Xander-level snark and quips. Izzy is not quite as pale with dark hair and an extensive wardrobe. As the sexually liberated one of the group, this has resulted in her appearing as eye-candy for demons and wearing a succession of impractical demon fighting garb.
The thing is, they all look the part. The issue is with the characters they are playing, the dialogue and direction they have been given, and the lack of empathy or emotion in the show. You can’t fault them for the enthusiasm with which they have seemed to throw themselves into this series. But, as with so many shows aimed at the teen demographic, they are not, perhaps, the most experienced or talented actors in the world. Their job is not made any easier by the fact that the dialogue is pretty awful, the story is a bit ridiculous and nonsensical, and the fight choreography depends on lots of jump-cuts and shifts in perspective to give it any life. With better material it is entirely possible that these actors would shine, but given the source material and story they are forced to work from, they were pretty much doomed from the start.
The first episode is a mess of clashing scenes that try to ram the complicated exposition down the audience’s throat in the vain hope that info-dumping the world, history and character details, throwing in a few action scenes, and adding some sparkling effects will make you tune in next week to find out what the hell is meant to be going on. If the dialogue and acting had been convincing enough to sell the story, this wouldn’t have been so much of an issue, but unfortunately because the story is from the books even the greatest actors in the world, in conjunction with the best screen writers and CGI effects teams would have been pushed to the limit to make this story work. An alternative would have been to take advantage of the medium and tell the story a little more slowly, and allow the history to emerge over the course of the season, but, alas, this was not to be.
Like the actors, the show looks superficially pretty, but it lacks depth and substance. It has the added issue that the prettiness is unevenly spread with some scenes and sets looking slick and polished, and others looking badly lit, cheap, and crude. The CGI itself is not that bad for a TV show. But the production team made some questionable decisions with the props that look like fantasy toys from the local store. Plus, a secret old-world magical base in a gothic Cathedral should probably not have state of the art routers, flatscreen displays and the type of technology and background staff that would make CGI: Teen edition weep. And shouldn’t magical tattoos look cool rather than a bad skin disease or a suspicious rash?
More troubling is that this lack of substance to the sets extends to the distinct vacuum where emotional resonance should be. For example, when Clary first embraces her destiny as a Shadowhunter it is essentially used as an opportunity to give her a new wardrobe change into ‘sexy’ leather and not signal an empowering moment of seizing her own destiny and choosing to fight for her life. When Jace reveals that he too has lost his parents the emotional impact is roughly the same as if he had just said that he too liked cheeseburgers.
It all just feels a little soulless. A little superficial. I mightn’t have been a fan of the books or film, but I wanted this show to do well. I wanted to be surprised and entertained. Instead, I was disappointed by a series that fails on almost every level. But, as with any TV show, this is early in its run. It may find its feet and go on to tell an interesting, adventure filled romp through a supernatural world… I just won’t be holding my breath.
 Why understaffed? Well why else would a bunch of children/teenagers be sent out to fight the forces of evil if they had sufficient adult staff?