Thanks in part to the far-reaching success of HBO's fantasy series Game of Thrones, the world of television is bracing for an influx of programs set within the genre all hoping to achieve the same kind of triumph. As an audience, we've never been more primed and ready for a deep cannonball into those risky waters, but so far the new series haven't been all that well-received. MTV's adaptation of Terry Brooks' The Shannara Chronicles premiered last week, and although it was beautifully filmed in New Zealand, it was also fairly stunted in both the writing and the acting of its leads. Freeform's (previously ABC Family) new series Shadowhunters, which is an adaptation of Cassandra Clare's popular Young Adult series The Mortal Instruments, struggles even more to create a compelling story out of writing that's not just flat and unpolished, but feels like it was written as an exercise in a Screenwriting 101 class to show you what not to do. All of which is unfortunate given the elaborate world the series is supposed to depict.
The series chronicles the life of Clary Fray (Katherine McNamara), a talented artist who found out on her 18th birthday that she was a Shadowhunter a.k.a. a human-angel hybrid whose primary purpose as a member of the secretive race was to protect humans and keep the demons and what the series referred to as Downworlders—vampires, werewolves, warlocks, and fairies—in check. Led by her mother Jocelyn (Maxim Roy) all her life to believe that she was human (or a Mundane, as they're politely referred to in the series), Clary learned the truth about her true lineage when she came of age and her powers started to manifest through the drawing of runes and being able to see those creatures belonging to the Shadow World. Once her mother was kidnapped by a fearsome and mysterious man known only as Valentine (played by Reign's Alan Van Sprang) and she was nearly killed by a demon, she was taken in by fellow Shadowhunters, the good-looking Jace Wayland (Dominic Sherwood), and siblings Alec and Isabelle "Izzy" Lightwood (Matthew Daddario and Emeraude Toubia, respectively).
On the page, the Mortal Instruments series is a sprawling urban story that is highly readable but not all that complex. It suffers from predictability and a poorly handled major plot point that is dragged out for far too long (if you've read the books or you've seen the 2013 film starring Lily Collins, then you already know what it is and how eye-roll-worthy it is). It's also weakened by Clary's status as a frustrating, impulsive lead character who rushes into every situation without thinking but somehow always ends up on the winning end by sheer willpower or, more likely, because she's the heroine and the laws governing the series dictate that she must. Her actions were often passed off as courage, but they're really just a manifestation of the character's innate stubbornness. In Shadowhunters, that personality trait remained and Clary still wandered into situations with complete disregard for her own personal safety. Had she grown up in the magical world of her people, she'd have every right to be there, but because she had no knowledge of this world and had no proper training, she was more of a liability than anything else.
It's hard, of course, to call this a real flaw at this stage when Clary's ignorance of the truth was the point, but if it continues, it could be just as problematic on the screen as it was on the page. Currently, she has no idea what she's walking into because her mother attempted to shield her from the Shadow World since before she was born for reasons that are, as of the pilot, not entirely clear. There's a dangerous group known as the Circle that posed an immediate threat, an ominous Mortal Cup that everyone who's evil was apparently looking for, and about 1,000 more secrets bursting to be set free.
As seen in the premiere, Clary's mother took her to see the warlock Magnus Bane (Glee's Harry Shum, Jr.) every few years to erase her memories of this magical world so she could grow up as a normal child. Once she hit 18, however, she tried desperately to explain the truth to Clary, starting by gifting her a stele, or a tool used to draw runes on a Shadowhunter's body that in turn gave them special abilities. But because Clary was a teenager and we all know teenagers ignore their parents because they know everything, she told her that whatever she wanted to say could be said tomorrow, which is storytelling code for Oh Shit Something Bad Is Going to Happen Tonight. And that's really the series' biggest problem: everything was so heavily and horribly telegraphed by obvious, clunky dialogue that when Clary insisted that she was normal even as all of these weird things continued to happen around her you wanted to bang your head into the nearest wall, like WE GET IT, SHOW. SERIOUSLY, WE GET IT. The in media res opening featuring Jace, Alec, and Isabelle trailing a shapeshifter also didn't help that particular issue, either.
The world that was presented within the pages of Clare's Young Adult series was huge and always expanding, and there's potential there to become an interesting television series, but so far there is little evidence to suggest Freeform's version will be able to capitalize on that potential... or ever resemble anything remotely watchable. The dialogue was cringeworthy and the actors who were forced to repeat it look as if they didn't even believe it, making it difficult for viewers to immerse themselves within the world. Some of it was the result of predictable exposition that could not be helped, but other times it was just the product of poor writing, horrible attempts at foreshadowing, and trying to do too much at once. If the series hopes to attract viewers beyond tweens or those who are already familiar with the source material, it's going to need to step up its game in a big way, starting with Clary and Jace. When Clary first met his character outside of a club and he was shocked that she could see him, their interaction felt stiff and unwelcoming, which, given that Jace is initially supposed to be arrogant and cocky, was at least theoretically within reason. But Jace is also described as having angelic features and is supposed to be swoon-worthy. There will no doubt be plenty of swooning in the future for Clary, but nothing about the character's initial introduction—not even his handsome face—suggested anything of the sort.
In fact, nothing about Jace, Alec, or Isabelle was all that inviting. After one hour, the series still hadn't given viewers a reason to care about their characters or their mysterious and dangerous line of work. These were teenagers who regularly fought demons with weapons called seraph blades, who used runes to glamour themselves so they could not be seen by the regular public, and who operated out of an old church that's been turned into what was essentially—and for lack of a better term—a command center. These were people you should want to know more about, but somehow still weren't interesting enough to draw your attention. And that's because the pilot itself was too busy, trying to cover too much ground by quickly rushing from one plot point to the next. There wasn't time to get to know any of the characters who were introduced in the pilot, a list that in addition to Clary, her mother Jocelyn, Jace, Alec, Isabelle, and Valentine included Clary's mother's friend Luke (Isaiah Mustafa), her best friend Simon (Alberto Rosende), her neighbor (Vanessa Matsui), and more. Not only could Valentine's introduction have come at a later date, but the fight scene between Jocelyn and the Circle members, as well as her drinking of the potion that put her in a coma-like sleep, could have been shelved for a flashback. It would have given far more weight to her disappearance and allowed more time for viewers to get to know who Clary was and introduce her to this scary new world. Because that's what matters in the pilot.
There is no rule that says you have to introduce everything all at once, and it's always going to be difficult to adapt far-reaching novels for TV since we're no longer viewing the story from a single point of view as we would in the novel, but slowly immersing viewers in the story and letting them get used to the waters as it unfolded would have been a better approach here. The reason that a series like Game of Thrones has been successful is not just because it has HBO money but because the world of Westeros is captured through careful writing that slowly peels back layers to add depth to characters, their surroundings, and their actions. And, you know, because it doesn't sound like it was yanked from a 15-year-old girl's fanfic. It's hard to tell if Clary's interactions with Jace began to feel more natural and the dialogue not so foreign by the end of the hour, or if I'd just given up on the pilot by that point, but one thing is certain: the series is trying to do far too much, too quickly in an effort to stand out. It's too bad then that it's having the opposite effect.
– I have mixed feelings about Simon. I'm going to need more time with him before I can make up my mind about this incarnation.
– The series seriously aged down the Madame Dorothea character and renamed her Dot. I'm not sure what the purpose of this was, except that this is a show for young adults. Maybe it made her more unassuming? I'm not entirely sure.
AIRED ON 1/16/2017
Season 2 : Episode 3
AIRS ON 1/23/2017
Season 2 : Episode 4