To say I was hype for “Shadowhunters” would be an understatement. For the past six months, I had been looking for any excuse to write about it — as evidenced by my literary masterpiece, “’Shadowhunters’ Cast, Ranked By Hotness.”
But my fascination with the Shadow World went further back than that, starting five years ago when I cautiously ogled “City of Bones” at the Strand on Broadway. I know they say not to judge a book by its cover, but here was Jace Lightwood, blonde and shirtless, and in my fragile mundane state, I couldn’t resist the temptation to pick it up.
Within the next few weeks, I inhaled Cassandra Clare’s “The Mortal Instruments” series. It’s a perfect mix of humor, pathos and action filled with wonderfully fantastical elements and relatable characters. Clary Fray, our fiery-haired heroine, felt like an authentic teen, which means that sometimes, she thinks about stupid s–t. (Yes, I’m talking about her inner “there are no fat and ugly vampires” monologue. We can thank for “Twilight” for that ~ deep ~ thought.) Was “TMI” perfect? Of course not. But it was a hell of a lot of fun.
So that’s why it physically pains me to acknowledge that the “Shadowhunters” pilot, titled “The Mortal Cup,” is not very good. It’s egregiously clunky, confusing and frankly, for a wildly fanciful world seeped in Downworlders and half-angel, half-human demon hunters, lacks any magic whatsoever.
Now, that’s not to say I’m giving up on the series. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Pilot episodes are notoriously subpar. For what it’s worth, “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” one of the most beloved shows ever, had a terrible pilot. Not only does a first episode have to grab our attention, but it also has to introduce us to an unfamiliar world and a bunch of characters we don’t care about yet.
Only a handful of television dramas have pulled off a near-perfect pilot — think “The O.C.,” “Friday Night Lights” and “Pushing Daisies.” But usually, there’s a moment in every pilot when something clicks and you see a glimmer of the show’s potential. For me, “Shadowhunters” fumbled its moment. Everything from the filmmaking choices to the writing just felt off.
You’d think “Shadowhunters” would have the upper hand considering that it’s based on a popular book series, but maybe that’s the problem. “Shadowhunters” feels burdened by the weight of its own story… And given the otherwise straight-forward nature of the series it’s based on, in the TV show there are some moments that are downright nonsensical.
That’s not to say there isn’t potential (there’s plenty given the source material), but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.
But first, let’s start with the good. Simply put, Emeraude Toubia eats everyone for breakfast, spits them out and then proceeds to whip her perfectly tousled tresses in their faces. Honestly, Toubia delivers the most earnest performance as Izzy, Alec’s (Matthew Daddario) feisty sister. The way she saunters through the Shadowhunters’ home base of the Institute is the most delightful thing about this pilot.
As Clary’s (Katherine McNamara) bespectacled best friend Simon, Alberto Rosende is often saddled with cheesy dialogue, but ultimately, his performance has a lot of heart. Plus, he gets to sing Alphaville’s “Forever Young,” so he’s already up there as one of my favorites. Rosende embraces Simon’s nerdy, fanboy swagger and wry modesty with vigor. It’s almost as if he’s the only one that got the memo that this is supposed to fun.
That’s the most frustrating thing about “The Mortal Cup”: it’s void of fun. This cast has an insane amount of chemistry (trust me, I’ve seen it first hand), but none of that comes through in these first 40 minutes. Jace (Dominic Sherwood) and Alec are supposed to be parabatai — two Shadowhunters bound together by an oath — which means they should have the most intimate relationship… And yet, it feels flat.
That’s not to say Sherwood and Daddario aren’t talented actors. The glaring reality is that this dialogue lacks both substance and conviction. Sherwood delivers a more subdued, yet equally sardonic performance as leading man Jace, while Daddario is the thoughtful, militant backbone of the Team Shadowhunters who, sadly, doesn’t get a whole lot to do. (He sure does look beautiful, though.)
Same goes for Harry Shum Jr. As the High Warlock of Brooklyn, Magnus Bane, Shum Jr. should be having the most fun — this is a character who not only gets all the best lines, but also shrouds himself in glitter and hairspray — but again, he doesn’t really get a lot to do in “The Mortal Cup,” aside from one disjointed flashback scene that would have been better off left out entirely.
Meanwhile, the series’ big bad antagonist, Valentine (Alan Van Sprang), makes his rather distracting debut by the episode’s end. Instead of leaving me wanting more, I was underwhelmed by Valentine’s madcap sub-plot. Where’s the gravitas, dude? The strength of a show is determined by its antagonists, so why didn’t the Powers That Be build up their villain entrance? I wanted something dramatic, but instead, I got an angry guy with incompetent minions. As far as villains go, Valentine is rather forgettable.
And as for Clary, our plucky protagonist has neither pluck nor her signature sarcasm. I don’t blame McNamara; after all, she doesn’t really have a lot to work with in this pilot episode. (Although, her meet-cute with Jace outside of a club was indeed charming.) However, my biggest problem with the show’s depiction of Clary — the imperfect, yet ardent heroine in the “TMI” canon — is that they strip away her personality. In “Shadowhunters,” Clary is a blank slate.
Instead of beginning the series with Clary in Park Slope, “The Mortal Cup” kicks things off with Jace, Alec and Izzy outside of PanDEMONium. It’s certainly a sexy, action-packed way to suck viewers into the Shadow World, but it’s missing that intimate connection with its protagonist. At its heart, “The Mortal Instruments” is about an ordinary girl who finds out she has extraordinary abilities. While sexy human-angel hybrids are cool and all — and certainly a enthralling aspect of the fantastical world Clare has created — that’s not what “Shadowhunters” is about.
If “Shadowhunters” wants to get it right, then they need to do justice to its characters, especially Clary, who is by far the weakest in this pilot. Now, “The Mortal Instruments” has always suffered a bit from an overabundance of main characters, but “City of Bones” is Clary’s origin story, and the Powers That Be need to let her tell it.
As for Alec and Magnus’ momentous love story, it’s crucial that the writers understand the magnitude of this relationship to the fandom. When we meet Alec Lightwood in “City of Bones,” he’s in pain. He’s crumbling under the weight of his family’s high expectations and his confusing feelings for his best friend Jace. Meanwhile, Magnus is a 400-year-old, sexually fluid warlock who helps Alec understand his sexuality. Eventually, the two fall in love and YA’s most perfect ’ship is born: Malec.
Having talked to Daddario, Shum Jr. and showrunner Ed Decter, I know that the writers wants Malec to be more of a ~ slow burn ~ than an incendiary romance, but I hope they start building the framework early on in the season. To be completely honest, Alec and Magnus’ one glance in PanDEMONium didn’t cut it for me. I wanted to feel the beauty of the unexpected in that moment, and I just didn’t.
Next, the show needs to cut back on the cheesy dialogue. I get that Clary is a cool art student now, but no 18 year old would ever refer to her mom as “#StalkerMom.” Just… no. Stop it. In “The Mortal Cup,” the rich, albeit bustling, plot sacrifices clarity for density, and real, emotional resonance for cliché one-liners. The realest moment in that entire 40-minute episode is seeing Clary jump onto Simon’s back at the end of a confusing, throwaway scene. In that moment, Clary and Simon actually looked like best friends! More of that, please.
Finally, the show needs to do a better job of pacing and editing. (Something the big screen adaptation also failed to pull off.) As a fan, I don’t mind that the Powers That Be are taking liberties with Clare’s source material. I actually prefer that. After all, I’ve read all the books, and I want some surprises. But I don’t see the need in introducing a character or plot point when the main characters haven’t even been established. As a result, too much of the pilot feels like shorthand, a sloppy means to an end. Where’s the emotion?
Lucky for the Powers That Be, they have the ability to turn it all around. “Shadowhunters” will only be as strong as its core group of characters. Clary. Jace. Simon. Izzy. Alec. Magnus. These are the characters that fans have fallen in love with; these are the people they care about. If “Shadowhunters” wants to succeed, then it needs to tone down the background noise and hone in on these relationships. They’re the heart of this series, the entire reason it’s been given a second life on television, and they deserve some respect.
Also, for the love of all that is holy in Idris, please no more biscotti mind tricks.