Review: Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments (Freeform, 2016 – )

 

 

Shadowhunters-TV-show-poster-1448056730

Review: Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments (Freeform, 2016 – )

 

Short Review:

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.

 

Longer Review:

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.[1]  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.

 

[1] 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?

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An initial intrusion becomes an accepted reality: Narrative slippage in Urban Fantasy series

Harry-dresden

Urban Fantasy Series, such as Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, and to some extent Charlene Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries, illustrate a weakness in current critical approaches to fantasy series.  Put simply, when a fantasy narrative is part of a series rather than a stand-alone, a trilogy or a closed narrative system, many of our critical approaches to fantastic narrative break down.  Urban fantasy series almost invariably begin with what Mendlesohn has termed ‘Intrusion’ fantasy, however, as each series progresses, the narrative shifts towards another of Mendlesohn’s taxonomic terms ‘Immersion fantasy’.[1]  The fantastic elements of the world building have a tendency to become more complex and feature more prominently leading to a distinct change in style of narrative, no longer does the fantastic intrude upon reality, the fantastic becomes the reality.

Early instalments in the series feature intrusions of fantastic elements into the relatively mimetic diegetic setting or story world.  These intrusions lead to the hero protagonist engaging with elements of the fantastic and resolving the problems created by the intrusion, Dresden defeating an evil wizard, Atticus fighting off faerie, and Sookie dealing with the repercussions of vampire Bill moving into the neighbourhood.  Later instalments in these series move further away from this structure of intrusion and rectification toward a more accepting or immersive stance toward the fantastic and a more active exploration of the fantasy elements.

Dresden routinely leaves the environs of Chicago to frequent exotic locales and other planes of existence, Atticus abandons Arizona in favour of visits to Tir Na nOg and Asgard, Sookie spends less time in the domestic settings of Bon Temps and begins to engage with the complicated politics and social structures of the supernatural world.  In each case, the base line diegetic reality becomes more fantastical and less mimetic.  Fewer mundane characters feature prominently, and a substantial portion of the dramatis personae are magical or fantastic in some way.

Framing this in structural narratological terms.  Rather than narrative tension being created through confrontation between the hero and an intrusive fantastical element, the narratives derive tension and impetus from interaction with and exploration of wider supernatural and magical realms.   The hero is no longer preoccupied with the defence of reality from a magical intrusion, but rather the hero is engaged with a broader reality, it is just that the reality in question has now become fantastic.

This then poses a question, if these series transition from intrusion fantasy to immersion fantasy whilst retaining a reader base and remaining ‘true’ to the series with no apparent or significant alteration of plot, story, character or type, what does the identification of intrusion or immersion really highlight and illustrate?  Or perhaps less aggressively we could ask, given that these fantasy series are a continuation of an existing narrative, how can this transition be explained?

What are the narrative structures being discussed?

A standard structural approach to analysing narrative is to locate the source of the driving force of the narrative, the narrative tension.  This can usually be found as existing between two opposing forces:   The protagonist’s goal or desire acting in one direction and driving the narrative toward that, and a counter force that exists to thwart or counteract this put in play by the antagonist’s goal or desire which places obstacles in the hero’s path, or vice versa.

The Heroes want to destroy the ring, Sauron wants to reclaim the ring.

The detective wants to solve the murder, the serial killer wants to go on killing.

The Martians want to invade Earth, the Heroes wish to repel the invasion.

It is a nice, straightforward, if slightly reductive way, to visualise narrative tension.  Of course there are other ways of framing this conflict that take into account broader concepts.   Vladimir Propp created an outline to a hero’s journey in his work Morphology of the Folktale.  Simplistically put, he suggests that a lack or wrongness initiates a call to adventure, the hero then journeys and passes trials before redressing this lack and concluding with a restoration and healing of the world order.  Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth[2], posits a similar narrative trajectory that moves from a diegetic story world that has been disrupted, the rising of a hero to counteract this disruption and the resolution of the adventure in which the disequilibrium is negated and the world order is restored.  John Clute, in The Enclyopedia of Fantasy suggests the concept of the ‘Full Fantasy’ which posits that the adventure begins with a wrongness of the land, which, following the successful hero’s journey, is redressed, and the land is healed and restored.  So despite the variants and intricacies of each of these approaches, there is apparently an underlying pattern here of the supposed structural narrative paradigm of a fantasy adventure.

How does this then relate to Mendlesohn’s concept of the intrusion fantasy?

The trajectory of the Intrusion Fantasy is straightforward: the world is ruptured by the intrusion, which disrupts normality and has to be negotiated with or defeated, sent back whence it came, or controlled.[3]

It seems that each of these approaches is highlighting much the same thing, and in terms of Urban fantasy we can view it as the following:

A mimetic reality is placed into disequilibrium/wrongness/lack by the intrusion of a fantastic element which does not belong.  So in effect, the mimetic, mundane world has been disrupted by a fantastic intrusion.

The hero then seeks to remove or resolve this by attempting to remove/defeat/contain the intrusion and return the world to the status quo, therefore returning the world to normalcy and mundanity.  So far so good.  It all seems straightforward.  All these models seem to agree. Rather suspiciously one might feel.

So is that what happens in Urban Fantasy Series?

Consider Book 1 of the Dresden Files – Storm Front

In the case of Storm Front, modern day Chicago is under magical attack, the police are out matched and don’t really understand what is happening, and the only wizard listed in the phone book is Harry Dresden.  Harry, who is perceived as a charlatan by a number of the characters, acts as a private investigator and consultant to the police.  He eventually tracks down the evil magic user and defeats him, thus saving the city, protecting the mundanes from knowledge of the supernatural world, and returning to his apartment to await the next case.

So the majority of the narrative focuses on Harry’s efforts to track a supernatural killer on the streets of modern day Chicago whilst hiding this information concerning the fantastic from the police.  In effect, Harry acts as a supernatural guardian protecting the mundanes from a fantastical world they are not ready to, nor capable of, accepting.

The narrative tension is created through Harry’s drive to protect the innocent civilians of the city, solve the case, prevent himself from being killed by the intrusion of an evil fantastic element that does not belong in his city and to bring the villain to justice.

A fantastic intrusion disrupts the mundane reality.

The Hero seeks to correct this wrong.

The Intrusion is contained, normality resumes and the narrative ‘resets’ ready for the next adventure.

So far Mendlesohn’s, as well as Campbell, Clute and Propp’s, narrative structures hold true.
The next example is Book one of Kevin Hearne’s The Iron Druid Chronicles – Hounded.

Attitcus, the 2000 year old or so last remaining Irish druid, is living peaceably in modern day Arizona.  Some faerie characters arrive having finally tracked him down, including some of the Sidhe, they cause havoc as Atticus attempts to counter them and protect the locals from being exposed to the supernatural elements, he defeats them and ultimately the world returns to normal at the end of the book.

So clearly the arrival of an unwanted fantastical element, the faerie and the Sidhe, create the narrative tension in the book, or to put it another way, the fantastic intrusion creates a disequilibrium which much be opposed and thwarted by the hero to resolve the problem and return the world to normalcy.

So in the case of Book Ones… or should that be books one… Mendlesohn’s taxonomy, like that of Campbell’s, Clute’s, and Propp’s, appears to be an accurate narrative template.   They each describe what is happening within the text in solid reasonable and identifiable terms.  A wrongness, lack or intrusion begins the tension.  The hero progresses through trials and adventures before ultimately repelling the intrusion and righting the wrong.  The world is returned to equilibrium.

But, what happens when we consider later books in these series?

While initially these series appear to begin as intrusion fantasises with mundane mimetic realities which have been invaded by fantastical elements, the later books have embraced the fantastic reality and there is a more active exploration in the narrative of the magical or supernatural potential in these story worlds.  Or more accurately, the fantastic has become normalised and magical or supernatural has become matter of course.

In Changes (book 12) of the Dresden Files as the title suggests marks a radical change to the main series and signals how the series will transition.  Harry’s points of connection to Chicago, his car, his apartment and his office are destroyed.  Harry’s hitherto unknown daughter has been kidnapped by Red Court vampires, and even with the resolution of the narrative Harry cannot become a father to her and thus fully embraces a magical existence.

The narrative culminates in a journey with his faerie godmother (faerie with an ‘ae’), his apprentice Molly, his brother the White Court succubus Thomas, a magical dog, two half-vampire vampire hunters, and another group of wizards as well as mercanaries strongly linked to Norse Mythology, to Chichen Itza via the Never Never, to battle hundreds of vampires, their familiars, servants and vampire masters.  It is a full blown epic battle, in an exotic location with only a passing resemblance to the real world locale, populated by hundreds of magical and fantastic characters.

Many of the major aspects of the novel focus on the politics of the supernatural realms such as the vampire courts, the council of wizards (The White Council), the Faerie courts and the holy knights of the church.

Few of these aspects are directly explained to the narratee, as there is an assumption that with the 12th book in the series readers will already be familiar with each of the concepts.  The tone and style are clearly immersive given this assumption of knowledge.  And there is a shifting of the tension from a passive counter-action in response to an intrusive element to an active journey and quest adventure to battle fantastic elements in a magical locale.

This is a quest to find and rescue Harry’s daughter, not to stop the intrusion of Red Court vampires into Chicago.  The destruction of the Red Court vampires does not reset the world ready for the next adventure.

So what has changed and how do we explain this?

So firstly let’s examine the function of the mimetic setting.

The mimetic setting, be it Chicago, Illinois or Tempe, Arizona establishes a base line diegetic universe or setting for the reader.  It suggests a diegetic reality that is easily understood and negotiated given its cultural verisimilitude and implied ‘rules’.  It is an easy to understand reality about which the reader can make a series of assumptions and educated guesses.  Gravity will function, police and fire trucks will respond to emergencies, characters have to pay taxes.  In effect, it eases the reader into a state of assumed security and comfort which can then be intruded upon by a fantastic element to unsettle, entertain, or entrance the reader, depending on the author’s intention.

By establishing this base mundane norm, any fantastic element will seem ‘more fantastical’ by contrast.  But it will also create certain expectations about how the fantasy elements will be explained within the setting.  There must be a rationalisation of the fantasy.  For instance, if dragons exist and are flying around, why have they never been seen (an issue with the Harry Potter universe).  If vampires exist, why have they never been caught, and so on and so forth.  There must be a reason to explain their existence in ‘our’ reality.

The author must find various ways and means to allow the reader’s perception of reality to coincide with the diegetic reality created but make the inclusion of potential fantastical elements both believable and credible.

This is a clear distinction to secondary world fantasy in which entirely fantastical worlds can be created that function perfectly rationally according to entirely different rules and versimilitudinous norms.

The reader’s understanding of reality can then be subverted or played with by the author in order to create the desired effect.  In horror, sinister, frightening or disturbing elements may be emphasised.  In urban fantasy it tends toward the more wondrous end of the spectrum.  To put it in the vernacular, Excitement, adventure and all things that a Jedi does not crave.

In essence then, a mimetic setting provides the initial cultural, geographical context for the narrative, as well as implying a number of base norms about the diegetic reality that function as a shorthand notation to explain the rules of the diegetic universe, leaving the author to explore and explain only those aspects that do not conform to our base reality.

Therefore the appearance of an initial mundane reality circumvents the need to establish a base norm as it is already implied. It avoids the necessity of explaining how the world functions.  It also provides a mundane contrast to potential fantastical effects to heighten the impact of the intrusion and create wonder.  And lastly, it provides a continuous and re-usable setting for fantastic stories.  Our world keeps on spinning and so too does the diegetic reality of a series.

We then have the altered structure of ‘series’ to consider.  Series are part of an extended narrative – There is no ‘conclusion’ to the narrative or story world that results in true resolution, but there must be a meaningful end to the episode to provide closure and to resolve aspects of the story.

But series are ongoing adventures.  Each building on the last.  So we commonly have an Escalation in each subsequent instalment and a desire for the new, be it adversaries, locations, concepts or effects.  As each episode ends there is a desire to level up characters, give them new powers, to ratchet up peril, tension and goals for the next story.  To use an example from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  In the first episode a single vampire can be a challenging foe, by the end of season 3 ‘normal’ vampires are now incidental villains that can be easily dispatched.  Heroes grow more powerful and adept as they grow and therefore their challenges need to escalate to match that, which is very much a concept borrowed from RPGs and the idea of character levelling.

Practical matters of the author reader relationship also need to be addressed.  Unlike with a book one or a standalone narrative, there is an established readership who are already well versed in the reality as the series progresses, therefore there is no need to re-explain the base-line reality each and every time.  Thus the style of the narrative can become much more immersive as there is an assumption of narratee knowledge and understanding.

A reusable setting or diegetic world, is a necessary part of a serial narrative.  Should the world be healed and resolved then there are only a certain number of times and ways it can be re-imperilled without sounding contrived or trite.  An example of this problem can be found in David Eddings’ Belgariad and Malloreon quintets, in which the world ending narrative of the first five books is essentially repeated in the subsequent five book series.  He then repeats this pattern with the Elenium trilogy and its sequel, the Tamuli trilogy.  In each case he simply repeats the narrative pattern and structure of the first story in the sequel with minor variations in setting and character.

Linked to the concept of escalation is the need to cover new territory, visit new locales, introduce new and more exciting characters, abilities, magical creatures.  The fantastic reality that intruded in the first book, now must be explored, mapped, codified and tabulated in an effort for the fan to understand all there is to know about that world.  The author in a series often adds new storyworld material as a way to create

Fundamentally then, the series has transitioned from a closed narrative system to one that is open-ended and that must continue to evolve and grow, adding new elements and greater threats.  The hero must become more active and seek out adventure rather than passively wait for an intrusion to disrupt normality.  In fact, as the series progress, they become more and more like portal quests conducted over many instalments.  This results in many of these series becoming immersive, portal quest fantasies that alternate between passive and active reactions to Intrusion in a cycle of escalating power dynamics.

An interesting aspect of the move toward immersive fantasy is that heroes gradually accumulate several magical helpers and allies, resulting in the construction of a balanced party of individuals which is of course a trope of the portal-quest or the quest adventure.  They end up touring various new lands and finding more acquisitive plots rather than the defence of an established territory.  Therefore, series are fundamentally different to assumed closed narratives and the existing critical paradigms we use.

Given the recurring use of setting, the continuing development of characters over the course of a series, the need for new adventure after new adventure. In effect, the need for new interesting developments, growths, settings, locations and adventures, there can be no closing of the narrative to allow for the traditional ending and resolution of the story.

The fantastic intrusion is too passive a structure for the acceleration of growth of character and development and exploration of the diegetic reality.

[1] Rhetorics of Fantasy

[2] Joseph Campbell The Hero with a Thousand Faces

[3] Mendlesohn Rhetorics p.115

(Originally presented as a paper at ICFA 34)