On Tuesday, a show many of us have been waiting a long time to see made its debut on Freeform TV in America – ‘Shadowhunters’, the new (second!) adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s ‘Mortal Instruments’ series. As a Brit, it was convenient that the episode made its appearance on UK Netflix mid-morning on Wednesday, when I had a day off. I subsequently spent the rest of the morning (and early afternoon) watching it (twice) and critiquing it in my head, before completely forgetting that I was intending to review it! So here are my four-days-late thoughts on the ‘Shadowhunters’ premiere episode, ‘The Mortal Cup‘!
CAUTION! THERE WILL BE SPOILERS FOR THE TV SHOW AND THE FIRST BOOK THROUGHOUT! IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE SHOW AND READ THE BOOKS, AND DO NOT WANT SPOILERS, PLEASE DO NOT READ ON!
I am in the minority that actually enjoyed the movie. Of course it wasn’t perfect, but I thought it captured the essence of the storyline and made significant changes in order to distance itself from the books. As I said in my post on adaptations, I actually prefer an adaptation to take the core story and run with it, making a show which is still recognisable as the books with the same characters and overall story arc (not necessarily the same step-by-step events) but is not a direct replica. From the interviews with the cast and crew of the TV show, it was evident that this was their intention from the beginning, which I liked the sound of. Some of the tasks for me were always going to be whether it was as enjoyable as the movie, how the cast compared, and whether I felt like I would stick with it, given that I am not a huge fan of TV dramas as a general. I did have an expectation in my head that this adaptation would be very typically ‘American ABC Family teen drama’ – don’t ask me what I mean by this as I am not entirely sure how to describe it, I just have a vision of all these similar shows e.g Pretty Little Liars and Vampire Diaries, with their ridiculously stereotypically ‘attractive’ cast members, romance-packed plots and cheesy scripts (I’m not bashing, they are enjoyable shows, just very different to the type of show I watch on British television.) These shows are never the best as a whole piece, yet tend to be very popular, so I don’t suppose it was a negative preconception, but I was slightly concerned that if it was too much like my stereotype then I would lose interest, as it simply isn’t my thing. Based off of the trailers, they had chosen incredibly cheesy moments with some very poor acting from Kat McNamara to advertise the show, and I was hoping that they had just made a bad choice with their advertising campaign, and that those clips did not reflect the standard of the whole series. My expectations were not incredibly high, but I did still have my fingers crossed.
After finishing the episode, my initial thoughts were definitely favourable. It had done exactly what it had said on the tin – they had created a typical ABC Family (sorry, Freeform…) show which took the core story and threw in little changes to keep the fans of the books intrigued, as well as trying to make it understandable to the new ones who hadn’t read the series. It did fit the expectation I had attributed to it, but nonetheless I found myself enjoying that. As pilots go, it was a decent one (bearing in mind that pilot episodes are often very bad indeed, even for series that become hugely popular). I do see potential for the series to come, which I think is the most important factor.
As promised, we had the same main storyline from the books, albeit with a few scenes reordered and with some additions to extend the plot further. The running order was generally well planned, although there were a couple of confusing blips – while I liked the opening with Alec, Izzy and Jace, having the scene with Jace and Clary outside Pandemonium twice (at the beginning and in its actual running order) was a bit bizarre. I liked the scene with Simon and Clary in the cafe, and how closely it resembled the equivalent scene from the film, as I did like that scene in the film. We have emphasis on other kinds of Downworlders such as vampires and warlocks a lot earlier on, helping to establish a dynamic between the races and paint a much fuller initial image of the world, whereas in the books it took a long time to get a sense of the feud between the races, as ‘City of Bones’ primarily focused on the problems of the Shadowhunters rather than the world as a whole. Moving forwards Luke’s dismissal of Clary and Jocelyn appears to be leading to Luke taking a more proactive role in searching for Clary, strengthening the dynamic between them. The flashbacks were executed well, some of the tiny details the fans adore (e.g. Simon’s ever-changing band name) were kept in, and I feel it has opened up more side-plots away from Clary’s arc, which is necessary of a TV show; the first book has few else in the way of stories, and we cannot just follow Clary’s story with no deviation from it, especially as the TV format allows more stories to run concurrently than a book typically does – as I am not a huge fan of Clary, moving away from her for a while and adding more alternate storylines is welcome to me. Another welcome addition was the modernisation using technology. One thing I’ve always thought was a little bit redundant in the books was the Shadowhunters’ complete ignorance to technology, despite the fact that their world and the mundanes’ are physically so close. I am willing to see how they use the presence of technology (and more people for that matter) in the Institute, meanwhile the running joke of Simon’s Twitter followers was amusing; technology is such a huge part of our lives that I feel it realistically has to play a part in the show.
Cast and Characterisation
The first point to note is that Clary, Simon and presumably the rest of the gang have been aged up by a couple of years – we see Clary celebrating her 18th birthday instead of her 16th. This felt like a sensible move – realistically, having only-just-16-year-olds doing some of the things they do in the book series just doesn’t ring true, and it isn’t that much of a gap, so doesn’t influence much at all about the characters and plot, other than Alec not being the only adult (which is not an issue – as the oldest sibling he still has the leader dynamic). I did have faith in most of the cast since they were announced: I liked Dom Sherwood in ‘Vampire Academy’, Alberto Rosende seemed incredibly invested in his role and Alan Van Sprang has such a good reputation that I felt confident his portrayal would be strong. Overall, I thought the cast was very good, and in most cases I preferred them to their movie counterparts. My stand-out star in the first episode was Alberto Rosende as Simon. My favourite of the movie cast was Robert Sheehan, so whoever took over the role had pretty big shoes to fill, which I felt Rosende did. The role seemed so natural to him that I am debating how much he himself has in common with the character. Simon as a character felt exactly how I saw him when I read the books, which I was very glad to see, as I adore Simon. I loved the Jewish references as well! Rosende has great chemistry with Kat McNamara, and their scenes together really do convey the strong friendship between Clary and Simon, as well as being when McNamara tends to up her performance; the pair really do seem to work well together. Another stand-out performer was Alan Van Sprang as Valentine. While Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Valentine in the film was a good villain, he didn’t match the character from the book. TV Valentine certainly bore more resemblance to the book counterpart, and the scenes showing Valentine with the unconscious Jocelyn certainly demonstrated his motivation, which in my eyes makes a villain more effective. We saw many sides of Valentine – the ruthless, the clever, the cunning and the more human – and Van Sprang played them all very impressively. Chernobyl is also a natural setting for Valentine’s strange lab! Another excellent performance came from Matthew Daddario as Alec. Alec is my favourite character, and I was relieved to see that the characterisation was strong for him, and he received better lines than the majority of other characters. Daddario captured the essence of the Alec I adored from the books, and I cannot wait to see how the character develops, as I’m sure Daddario will put in just as strong a performance as Alec mellows. I also particularly liked Isaiah Mustafa’s Luke. The sensitive and caring nature I associate with the character carried across well, as well as getting glimpses of the powerful werewolf. I also really like the change of profession – the police officer idea works perfectly for a character who wants to continue to help save the day, but is no longer able to as he has lost his role as a Shadowhunter. Another fitting character change is having Magnus own Pandemonium, which I felt was very appropriate, and hopefully will make Pandemonium the location for many more scenes. Harry Shum Jr and Maxim Roy put in good performances as Magnus and Jocelyn respectively, and I think it is worth noting that Emeraude Toubia did a decent job also. Many people seem to have a problem with the sexualised nature of Izzy in the TV show, and yes, she is very sexualised, but when I read the first book, I only saw the sexualised and slightly sluttish side of Izzy to be honest – it wasn’t until I read further and we got a back-story to her than I began to associate with her more as a character, and at the stage of the books that the TV show is currently at, the Izzy I was envisaging was not the powerful, strong woman that she eventually became, but was a woman who was only referred to in terms of her beauty and sexual prowess. Of course, I am hoping that the show begins to develop her character more, and I do not pretend to like how sexualised Izzy is at this stage, but my point is that at this stage of the books, the Izzy I read about and the Izzy I am seeing in the show are not too far apart, and I think that on the whole, Toubia plays her well. I will say that they are beginning to develop the brother-sister relationship between Alec and Izzy, and I am looking forward to seeing that continue.
On the flip side, there were some poor performances. Dom Sherwood was not brilliant, but to be fair he was given some of the worst lines of all, so I don’t blame him for not being able to deliver them naturally. He was also better than Jamie Campbell-Bower ever was in the film, and held his accent pretty well, but I am hoping to see an improvement there. Some of the supporting cast also put in weak performances, most notably Shailene Garrett as Maureen, but I think the most disappointing performance of all was unfortunately Kat McNamara. I will say that the acting we had already seen in the trailers was some of the worst , and that generally it was up from there (particularly when Clary returned from the police station after Jocelyn had been taken – that performance was actually very good indeed) however McNamara did consistently deliver her lines unconvincingly and wooden, and her weakness was sometimes glaring when she was acting alongside other cast members. She also had much more chemistry with Rosende’s Simon than Sherwood’s Jace, despite the fast pace at which the show is building up Clary and Jace’s relationship, which doesn’t bode well for fans of that relationship! Given that it sometimes takes a while to get into a role, we may yet see stronger acting across the board by the end of the series, so I am hopeful that Sherwood and McNamara particularly (as the two main characters) will get into the roles better after a few episodes.
One thing I cannot fail to mention is my take on introducing new characters. My stance is that as long as they work alongside existing ones instead of overshadowing them, I am all for it. In this case, I loved Dot. She is a brilliant take on Madame Dorothea from the books, and alongside Magnus, provides another link to the warlock world. Vanessa Matsui put in a good performance, and I think that Dot will be a useful character to the series when it comes to linking together storylines. Despite a weaker performance from Shailene Garrett, Maureen as a character was better than I had expected. I do not think she is (as most people feared) a real romantic interest for Simon, rather a platform to play with Simon’s attraction for Clary. Also, if she is going to fulfil the role of Maureen from the later books, it is firstly more appropriate that she has been aged up to match Simon’s age, and secondly, introducing her early makes for a much more believable link once they get to Maureen’s storyline from the books – I always thought she was hurriedly introduced into the fourth book, mainly as her arc was an afterthought from the original plan of the series, which would’ve ended after book three. This way (assuming the character fulfils the same role) Maureen’s later story would be executed far smoother, given she would not have just been introduced for that purpose – it almost feels like tying up a sort-of loose end that was pre-existing from the books, whilst providing an opportunity to indicate Simon’s feelings for Clary, killing two birds with one stone.
The production was overall pretty poor. Despite a few good comical lines for Simon and entertaining banter between Alec and Izzy, the scripts were very weak, incredibly cheesy and at times laughable, with awkward lines of dialogue and ill-explained statements that any actor would have his work cut out executing well (although Dom Sherwood fell foul of this the most). Humorous moments were written well, but anything requiring a jot of seriousness was awkwardly phrased or unnatural, and given that only a small proportion of the script is humour, the need to write better general dialogue is a pressing one. The special effects didn’t look quite right, and in some places were unnecessary, while the costumes were not always effective (see Izzy’s white dress and wig, although the dialogue between Izzy, Alec and Jace over it was comical). At times I was unsure about the direction, although it does have promise. However, one aspect which was spot on was the set design. I loved the sets – they were all very fitting, and Valentine’s lab especially was inspired. Some of the props were reminiscent of the movie props – such as Magnus’s door and the tarot cards – which were very good and quite nostalgic to see, and I may be in the minority, but I did like that the seraph blades only lit up when held by a Shadowhunter (even if it was a bit lightsaber-y, and the effects were not that great). The music was not bad either, which made me happy, as I pay a lot of attention to soundtracks for films and TV programmes. At this stage, I feel that most of the flaws come from a weak production team, which is not easily rectified at this stage.
As a whole, I do have high hopes for ‘Shadowhunters’ moving forwards. It certainly was not a bad pilot as pilots go, and I can see most of the issues I had with it being ironed out over time. If it continues at this standard, it will be a solid 8/10 series which I can see myself enjoying immensely. I am just glad that it did not fall foul of some of my preconceptions for it, and it ended up being more entertaining than I had anticipated.
‘Shadowhunters’ airs every Tuesday in the U.S on Freeform (ABC Family) at 9/8c, and is up on Netflix U.K. on Wednesday morning.