In its premiere episode, new series Shadowhunters gives us something of a pilot by the numbers. While not a terrible start to a show’s run it failed to grab attention as a weaker than average script and less than convincing actors left the episode lacking the punch it needed to fully draw the viewer in. Not bad, but not good either.
Imagine my surprise when the latest addition to the 2016 line-up was a television adaption of The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare – a property which had already tried and failed to make the jump to the big screen in 2013. Indeed, it seems like an interesting move, since memory of the less than stellar film starring Lily Collins and Jamie Campbell Bower is still fresh in out minds.
However, with a solid fan base instilled by the book series, I went into Shadowhunters with an open mind to see if the transition to the small screen would be a good fit for the popular stories.
The episode follows 18-year old Clary Frey (played by Katherine McNamara of Maze Runner fame) who, on her 18th birthday, begins to notice unusual goings-on around her: mysterious people who no one else can see, and strange symbols that she can’t remember drawing.
This culminates in a revelation that Clary is not entirely human, and that she is in fact a shadowhunter. A shadowhunter is a warrior who protects humans from ‘downworlders’ comprising demons and monsters of classic folklore, which go by largely unseen by wider society.
Just as Clary begins to search for answers though she finds herself under attack by rogue shadowhunters who have kidnapped her mother and are now hunting her down to find a mysterious artefact – the episode’s titular mortal cup.
So Clary must seek the assistance of others like her including Jace (Domninic Sherwood), Alec (Matthew Daddario) and Isabelle (Emeraude Toubia) to find her mother and find her place in a now vastly different world.
As a story I was left intrigued by the premise but mostly let down by the execution as the episode unfolded. My interest was piqued early on as the supernatural was present yet mostly hidden from view, but as the show continued the script propelled deep into its complex story with very little room for exposition.
While I can appreciate this ability to drop the viewer into the world and let them piece things together themselves, it wasn’t really the best move here as viewers were left trying to piece things together while learning an entire lexicon of jargon. This also gave the script an unreal quality as characters seemed to be spirited forward in a storyline without really pausing to ask why they were doing what they were doing. This made the characters themselves feel unrealistic, and while that might seem like an odd complaint in a fantasy series, it’s clear that after growing up with believable characters in Star Trek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer we’ve all learned to expect more.
The back story does seem pretty solid, but it’s hard to know because it’s perhaps a bit dense at this point. I hope this is something that may improve with time.
In terms of performances, I was again left wanting. McNamara, who plays the central role of Clary, is tasked with playing a modern young woman in a world that has drastically changed. She manages this at the beginning. Sadly, as the supernatural elements of the series begin to assert themselves, she becomes less and less believable as a character, as she runs to the will of the script rather than any recognisable motivation.
This becomes a trend throughout the episode, as we are introduced to characters played by actors who seemed to have been hired for their appearance rather than their talent. Don’t get me wrong, a little eye-candy never hurt anyone, but with only a handful of decent acting moments in the episode I’m worried that the barely post-teen cast will be able to shoulder an entire series.
That said, I concede that much of this may have been down to the frankly terrible script trying too hard to throw us all into the world of the shadowhunters and effectively weighing the actors down with too much extra work to set the scene.
I was actually left somewhat intrigued to see that Harry Shum, Jr (viewers may recognise from Glee), was here playing a warlock with a mysterious connection to Clary that has yet to be explained. While I’m not sure if he alone can save the show from being anything more than mediocre, I have enough patience left to see if there is anywhere left to go from here.
Looking at everything alluded to in the show, I’m left disappointed by a weak opening. But I’m inclined to see if first impressions can be deceiving. The central mystery featuring Clary and her mother is a good one, if only poorly executed in the pilot. If later episodes stop overloading us with jargon and spectacle and focus on something more real then the show might just be onto an eventual winner. If not, then all we can see in Shadowhunters‘ future is a bad ending with no chance of renewal.
Shadowhunters airs every Wednesday in the UK via Netflix.