Lucifer episode 1 review: Pilot

Lucifer's pilot lacks ambition, despite an eye-catching premise, a strong lead, and some Neil Gaiman-penned comic book origins...

This review contains spoilers.

1.1 Pilot

Whilst Tom Ellis’ Lucifer Morningstar cruised insouciantly through the midnight L.A. streets in the show’s opening scene, the devil’s own rock’n’roll blaring from his open-topped sports car as he toyed with the tawdry whims of the earth-bound set, it was difficult not to notice the clear visual and thematic links with the closing moments of Interview With A Vampire: Tom Cruise’s resurgent Lestat drives into the night, laughing diabolically, already ensnaring mortals with his dark gifts. Sure, San Franciso’s Golden Gate Bridge may have been substituted for the star-studded sidewalks of Hollywood; the sleek lines of the Mustang may have been replaced by those of a Corvette; even the music may have changed in name if not in nature; the central conceit, though, remains the same: being bad is fun, and although Lucifer did a passable job of portraying the diabolical amusement to be had by being The Devil himself, sadly, it did little else. Like the Prince of Darkness himself, Lucifer’s first episode fell pretty far from the grace afforded by its grand beginnings; unlike its namesake however, the show wasn’t undone by its ambition… but instead by a distinct lack of it.

But let’s come back to that. The vampire Lestat once said ‘I don’t know anything of hell’, and in that respect he and Lucifer couldn’t have been more different. Lacking in job satisfaction and tired of the prospect of ruling over the damned denizens of the infernal realm for all eternity (which, it has to be said, is quite a long time), the Lightbringer divests himself of all responsibilities as the Lord of Hell and exiles himself to Earth, looking instead to have a little fun.

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The inviting nature of this premise, (including the choice to open an L.A. based club named Lux) comes straight from the pages of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman books and whilst (according to Ellis) the writer himself is reportedly thrilled with the results, one wonders if it’s the show itself or Ellis’ central performance which has him so enamored. Whilst the episode itself failed to capture any of the dark, baroque majesty of Gaiman’s (and later Mike Carey’s) work, in Ellis the series seems to have found a perfect leading man: fittingly handsome, suitably suave and the possessor of seemingly unending reserves of impeccably English charm. It’s easy to see why mortal characters are spellbound by his presence. Sadly, the rest of the show doesn’t quite hold the same allure – whilst Lucifer’s predilection for entangling himself in the lives of mortals seems initially valid (‘I’ve got nothing but time’), the execution is much less so.

Lucifer gradually becomes drawn into the murder case as the episode progressed, and yet his decision by the show’s end to enter into a crime-solving partnership with Lauren German’s homicide detective seemed spurious at best – a trumped-up reason to shoehorn the Prince of Darkness into a weekly police procedural format. With the buddy cop dynamic firmly established, the show seemingly began to cash in on as many timeworn tropes as possible.

Suddenly, it felt less like we were watching something new and instead like Lucifer was something we’ve all seen before. By the show’s conclusion, his return to the sexually bewitched therapist offering carnal delights in return for someone to unload onto suggested future shows may well adopt the therapy-as-a-means-of-exploring-the-character’s-oh-so-conflicted-inner-nature approach. Again, it’s nothing new. The Sopranos did it first and best, after all. But now, with this therapy trope crammed alongside the bickering, odd-couple dynamic with Detective Dancer and the seeming intent to become a case of the week show, Lucifer’s pilot gradually seemed less and less likely to deliver on its original potential.

This isn’t to say that the show didn’t have its moments: the character’s supernatural ability to elicit people’s deepest, most secretive thoughts created some laugh out loud moments, especially at the wedding between the beautiful young supermodel and the ageing music industry mogul. Ellis got some good lines too, at the expense of the appropriately-named misogynistic rapper parody, 2 Vile. Lucifer’s assertion that ‘without the blues there’d be no devil’s music whatsoever. There are of course many giants in the field, just not you. Am I being clear?’ was a delightfully delivered character assassination that reduced the supposed lyricist to gruffly-worded threats.

At a couple of points throughout the episode we saw the titular character playing with a two-sided coin, a clear visual reference to the morality struggle that Lucifer may well be encountering. Beyond the unflappable exterior and the cutting one-liners, it’s this area that the show perhaps should be focusing on as there are a host of interesting philosophical questions to address: by rejecting the stewardship of Hell is Lucifer also renouncing evil? Was he ever evil or did opposing God simply cast him in that light? The character on which Lucifer is based is a tragic one; being eternally cast into the pit for daring to challenge God’s predestined will is darkly ironic when you consider that his act of rebellion was itself also part of the same enforced destiny. The pathos that this tragic, predetermined course creates was sadly absent from the opening episode – perhaps Morningstar’s two encounters with the angel Amenadial were supposed to develop such themes – if so, they lacked the necessary gravitas and jarred with the tone of the show anyway.

Whilst it was only the pilot and the show could yet transform into something beyond the sum of its parts, Lucifer Morningstar brought just a little too much of the light with him here; whilst the devil-may-care dashes of levity were well done in places, the mood of the show strayed far from its source material. Whilst that in itself is by no means a bad thing (and can often be a great thing), the lack of pathos present throughout the episode resulted in an overly cheery tone. Some of us like our Prince of Darkness with, well… a bit more darkness frankly; the tale of Lucifer is both epic and tragic in its nature and whilst it’s all well and good to reason that the Fallen One has abandoned Hell to escape such trappings, surely they should lurk at the story’s edge, inescapable and undeniable.

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It’s entirely possible that the show’s creators are aiming to move in an entirely different direction and, of course, that is their prerogative; it’s difficult not to wonder if the perceived failure of Constantine, another Amazon adaptation of a supernatural character from the pages of The Sandman, has resulted in the show’s creators leaning away from the supernatural tragedy aspect and towards something entirely different (read: mundane) in tone. Lucifer’s pilot episode felt more like an episode of Mephisto: Maverick Cop (okay, I made that up) but it could double as any other by-the-numbers U.S. police show export. Sound like hell? Quite possibly. At least the title character will be right at home.