One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
Like a damnably tenacious demon climbing out of hell, Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments has risen from the ashes of a very bad big-screen take on Cassandra Clare’s YA novels. And though that pic bombed in theaters just three years ago, this new take shapeshifts (and shoehorns) the same story of ridiculously attractive monster slayers in modern-day New York into a TV show format.
But disappointingly, though network Freeform (a newly rebranded ABC Family) is evidently hoping to attract more of an audience than the one drawn in by the film, this new series sticks almost exclusively to the same story beats – and almost perfectly mirrors its predecessor’s superficial and soulless flavor, albeit with much worse visual effects (and less subtlety, as indicated by the photo above).
The pilot is so bloated, attempting as it does to relay all the rules of its fictional universe through nauseatingly clunky dialogue and disorienting time- and location-jumps (including some to freaking Chernobyl, where the series’ big bad has randomly chosen to camp out), that it’s difficult to make sense of anything going on, but here are the basics.
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Protagonist Clary Fray (Katherine McNamara, whose fiery red hair represents one of the series’ most vivid visuals) is a typical teenager, concerned with getting into art school and remaining oblivious to the romantic interests of her BFF Simon (Alberto Rosende, playing him as a hot-nerd escapee from Urban Outfitters). When she turns 18, however, things get weird fast.
Suddenly, she’s drawing magical symbols called runes without meaning to – and then she catches the eye of a Brooding Handsome Loner (Dominic Sherwood) and his two companions (Emeraude Toubia and Matthew Daddario), who turn out to be Shadowhunters tasked with killing supernatural creatures before they can harm us hapless
muggles “mundanes.” And before you can say “rogue Shadowhunters searching for the Mortal Cup” (which someone actually does, so woodenly everyone on set must have ended up with splinters), Clary’s magic-savvy mom (Maxim Roy) has been kidnapped, and Clary must shack up with the Shadowhunters to get her back. Is there a destiny, you ask? Duh, of course, there’s a destiny. And an inchoate love triangle, natch.
With so much ground to cover, the episode barely takes a second to breathe, let alone pinpoint whether it’s making sense. Much of the blame for that should go to director McG, whose visually slick, intellectually callow style is all over an opening scene in which the Shadowhunters hunt a foe down an alleyway. The same frenetic camera manipulation is on display again when they duke it out with demons inside a seedy nightclub, twirling blades like batons. A lot of people detest McG, and Shadowhunters goes a long way toward explaining why – his hyperkinetic staging of action sequences is chaotic and incoherent, comprising dizzying fast cuts and jittery camera movements that make it hard to figure out what’s going on and impossible to care.
But even without McG’s emptily energetic touch, which won’t carry over to subsequent installments, Shadowhunters‘ script is howlingly bad, puking up exposition (there’s a lethal drinking game to be played with the dialogue in this thing) and failing to develop any of the characters, Clary included, beyond predictable stereotypes. The premiere moves so fast it forgets to go anywhere, and by the end of it, audiences will likely know as much about the series as they did going in but feel much less invested in seeing it progress. (It’s hard to imagine someone watching this blind and not changing the channel within five minutes.)
In this age of endless remakes, reboots and sequels, it’s not surprising that The Mortal Instruments got another go-round. The mythology-rich universe of Clare’s books, coupled with the swoon-worthy teen characters, seems conducive to a fun, engaging adaptation. But neither Screen Gems’ failed movie version nor Freeform’s shapeless take do right by it, and unless the series learns to slow down and take the time to explore the shadowy, complicated world it’s just barely sketching at the moment, it’s hard to imagine viewers sticking around for long.
There are some great teen-targeted shows on the air right now, from the morally complex and thematically bold CW series The 100 to the snarky and smart Scream reboot over on MTV, but there’s a key component, both of those series and pretty much every teen hit in recent memory, that’s sorely missing from Shadowhunters: a sense of humor. This is a show in which a beautiful teenager learns she can use magic to join a group of equally gorgeous folk in banishing the forces of evil, and one in which said forces of evil explode into colorful sparks when defeated. So why should it have to feel like such a self-serious slog?
Self-serious and deadly dull, Shadowhunters inexplicably misses its mark in just about every way.