This review contains spoilers.
1.1 The Mortal Cup
Lots of pilot episodes seem a bit clunky. They’ve got a fair amount of setting up to do, after all – the first episode of anything needs to introduce its audience to a setting, to characters, and, if the show’s got any kind of sci-fi or fantasy element, to the rules of its universe. So sometimes you get a bit more telling than showing, and some on-the-nose dialogue. That’s generally forgivable. But in the case of Shadowhunters, its first episode was so awkward it might be hard to come back from it.
To give it its due, it gets the first part out of the way quickly and fairly elegantly. The opening sequence establishes that this is a magical world with demonic type nasties in it, and also people who hunt them. Then it pulls back to introduce us to the main character, Clary (Katherine McNamara). Just turned 18, she’s a talented enough artist to bag herself a place at a prestigious art school, and also quirky enough to be working on a graphic novel about monsters with her best friend. So far, so good.
But then it’s time to introduce some other characters, and that’s where things start to go wrong. The series of books the show is based on, The Mortal Instruments, has a pretty large supporting cast, and Shadowhunters seems determined to introduce as many of them as possible in as short a time as possible – including all aspects of their personalities and relationships to one another. So we meet Clary’s best friend Simon (Alberto Rosende) and immediately establish that he’s hopelessly in love with her, while she’s oblivious. Meanwhile, his bandmate Maureen (Shailene Garnett) is hopelessly in love with Simon, though he’s mostly oblivious. Then there’s Clary’s mum, Jocelyn (Maxim Roy), who we learn through flashbacks is a kickass monster hunter who’s had a warlock (Harry Shum Jr) alter Clary’s memory to protect her, and Clary’s pseudo-step-father, Luke (Isiah Mustafa), who’s hopelessly in love with Clary’s mum, though she’s oblivious.
Think that’s a lot of pining for 40 minutes? That’s not even the full list of characters who are in desperately unrequited love in this episode. Before long, Clary runs into the Shadowhunters from the first scene, and we’re introduced to Jace (Dominic Sherwood), Isabelle (Emeraude Toubia), and Alec (Matthew Daddario), plus their world of CGI tentacles and magic tattoos. After a few jargon-filled conversations, Clary scrunches up her face and begs Jace to explain what’s going on in a more straightforward way, as much for our sake as for hers, and he sums it up with “All the legends are true.”
It’s a lot to take in, and there’s still more to come. The other major player the episode introduces is the villain of the piece, Valentine (Alan Van Sprang). And while you could almost blink and miss it in amongst everything else this episode wants to get across, he’s an unpleasant sort hiding out in the ruins of Chernobyl. Yeah. Seriously. For my money, that’s where this show goes from an awkward but potentially endearing bit of supernatural fluff to a slightly distasteful mess. It’s not clear yet whether we’re supposed to think Valentine was involved in the Chernobyl disaster or whether he just set up camp there because it’s unlikely anyone will stumble across his lab o’ monsters, but either way, it’s a pretty terrible idea.
With all those introductions to rattle through, it’s a wonder that this episode had space for any actual story, but there is a bit – Valentine has kidnapped Clary’s mum, for reasons as yet unknown, and he’s after Clary, too. In yet another bit of heavy-handed telling-not-showing, there’s a scene near the end where Clary’s offered two choices: to go with Jace and trust that he and his merry band of goth models can help her rescue her mother, or to go with Simon to the police and hope they can sort it out. She picks Jace, obviously, because there wouldn’t be much of a story otherwise. But it’s all so awkwardly handled, with so much cringeworthy dialogue you’ll need to consciously unclench your embarrassment muscles afterwards.
And of course the elephant demon in the room throughout is that this isn’t the first time Cassandra Clare’s novels have been adapted for the screen. The same production company that’s behind Shadowhunters had a go at bringing it to the big screen back in 2013, with the underappreciated The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones. That movie had its flaws, for sure, but it feels like a masterclass in storytelling compared to this bizarrely bone-headed reinterpretation. Fans of the books might have bristled at changes made in the Harald Zwart-helmed version, but they’re likely to be even more annoyed by the changes in Ed Decter’s small screen take.
Even in the first episode, it’s clear plot elements have been reshuffled, and characters have been altered. Luke’s a cop now, for starters, while Simon is a singer, rather than a bassist, and his band has been swapped out for an aged-up Maureen. It’s hard to tell – would it be easier to watch this show with no prior knowledge of the story, trying to stay on top of all the hundreds of seemingly irrelevant seeming bits of info this pilot throws at you, or as a fan, trying to juggle all the pre-existing versions of the story and characters in your head to keep on top of how this show is going to work?
It’s exhausting, either way. Maybe most of this episode’s problems can be put down to the fact that it is only a pilot, and maybe with time the characters will get some breathing space and things will start to develop a little more organically. Or maybe it’s always going to be this awkward. Shall we give it another couple of episodes?