Unless you are an aficionado of the work of Lily Collins, a dedicated fan of YA fantasy or a glutton for punishment, chances are you didn’t watch the portentously titled The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones when it was released in 2013. If you did indeed miss it in the cinemas – as most of the world did (under $100m worldwide for a $60m budget) – then you dodged a bullet, and a particularly dull one at that. Yet the series of books by Cassandra Clare remains popular, so it’s unsurprising that somebody else has had a go at adapting the lengthy series. This time it’s for the small screen, smartly rebranded The Shadowhunters and heading in weekly instalments to Netflix as an exclusive in the UK, produced by McG, who also directs the first episode.
The stories surround Clary Fray (Katherine McNamara), who, upon turning 18, discovers that she is part of a line of Shadowhunters, a group of magical beings who kill demons and protect humans. The first episode, named The Mortal Cup, throws her into the deep end of this world, as she encounters the sexy shadowhunters, tentacular demons and suspicious warlocks, all without ever having a clue of what’s going on. The audience sympathises.
The decision to move to the small screen does make sense after watching the seriously shaky, mildly intriguing pilot. Part of the problem with the film was the amount of unwieldy exposition it tried to cram in; the longer form of television theoretically allows more time to unravel the mysterious jargon and dense world-building of Clare’s novels. That being said, the pilot is still a dizzying, mystifying assault of largely nonsensical words. As Episode 1 progresses, terms like “runes”, “mundanes”, “downworlders” just pile on top of one another until it ceases to make any sense. The only real explanation is that “all of the legends are true”, but it’s never specified which legends.
This is the main problem with this pilot episode; Shadowhunters is in such a rush to introduce every detail and character of Clare’s layered world that the structure of the episode falls apart. The endless exposition and often bonkers world-building leaves The Mortal Cup desperately in want of dramatic propulsion or emotional resonance. It’s more interested in tokenistic references to crucial plot points that we won’t understand for many episodes than it is in establishing people to care about.
The issues don’t end there. The relentless need to introduce every aspect of the Shadowhunters universe leads to embarrassingly on-the-nose dialogue, where people declare character traits to each other, almost intentionally breaking the old show-don’t-tell rule. There’s an undeniably televisual aesthetic to the show, too; the ugly glare of the lighting renders the budget costumes and weak fight choreography in merciless detail. In the age of increasingly cinematic television, Shadowhunters looks noticeably cheap. McG, a notoriously bad director, has no eye for visuals – the most inventive it gets is a flickering club sign that shows up the “demon” in pandemonium. Aside from that, it’s first base production design – watch out for, at one point, a prosthetic costume that is diabolical in more ways than one.
The sheer enthusiasm with which this show rattles through terminology suggests that the density of this universe may end up paying off. It doesn’t make any sense at the moment, but there are just a few elements that will carry a large portion of viewers through to Episode 2. A couple of moments of surprising violence, some likeable supporting performances and teases of a sprawling, mildly insane world and Machiavellian plots imply something far more entertaining in the future after this rather laborious set-up. In spite of a largely terrible first episode, there is actually enough promise to suggest that this could well turn into a trashy treat for a certain kind of viewer. It’s unlikely that Shadowhunters will ever be good; here’s hoping that it ends up being fun.
New episodes of Shadowhunters Season 2 arrive every Tuesday exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription. Episode 1 premieres on 3rd January 2017, with Season 1 already available.