'Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments': TV Review
Freeform's new fantasy show is a slick, soulless adaptation of Cassandra Clare's popular young adult novel series.
Ah, to be 18 again! When your biggest concerns are what school you'll get into, meeting the love of your life and fending off armies of demons who would like nothing more than to destroy humanity. Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments' Clary Fray (Katherine McNamara) has already made some progress on the first two; when we first meet her, she nails her final NYC art school audition and then playfully brags about it to her bespectacled, clearly lovelorn best friend Simon (Alberto Rosende, rocking the nerd-with-abs look). But she's totally in the dark as to her monster-hunting capabilities, since her enchantress mother, Jocelyn (Maxim Roy), has been shielding her from the denizens of the demonic underworld since she was born. Time for a rude teenage awakening.
Readers of the best-selling young adult novel series The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare (the pen name of Judith Rumelt) surely know this setup. They may also be experiencing déjà vu considering that a film adaptation of the first of Clare's six books, City of Bones, came out to lackluster box office and overall indifference in 2013. But as our reboot-heavy era has shown, what fails in one medium can be reborn in another. And it's fitting that, as the ABC Family network rebrands itself as Freeform, their debut property is something similarly reworked.
Would that this 13-installment series, which adapts City of Bones and reportedly cherry-picks events from the other five Mortal Instruments books, were a jewel in a new crown. But based on the pilot episode, written by showrunner Ed Decter and directed (if you can call it that) by mono-monikered hack McG, it's more like a polished piece of fool's gold.
The slick superficiality that McG brought to his Charlie's Angels films is fully evident from an opening chase scene in which a trio of Shadowhunters — Jace Wayland (Dominic Sherwood) and the brother-sister team of Isabelle and Alec Lightwood (Emeraude Toubia and Matthew Daddario) — track down a demon who can shift identities in the blink of an eye. Pop music blares while our heroes strut, pose and leap through the air like models at a gravity-free fashion show. There's an eye-rolling visual gag involving a nightclub marquee. (The first and last three letters of the name "Pandemonium" keep flashing off, leaving only "demon" — subtle, guys.) And when the fresh-faced, mostly talent-free cast finally open their mouths to speak, the idiom is pure community theater, with an irritating dash of too-cool-for-school hipsterism.
Admittedly, it would be tough for performers of any talent level to say dialogue like, "Rogue shadowhunters searching for the Mortal Cup!" and convincingly keep a straight face. But it also doesn't help that the action scenes are shockingly incoherent; the pilot episode's centerpiece, in which Clary finds herself in the midst of a Shadowhunter-Demon showdown, is a hyperkinetic, digitally glossed flurry of swordplay and roundhousing. Not one punch or stab lands with any real force.
What remains is origin-story drudgery (much talk of lost magical objects and Clary's "destiny") that's occasionally leavened by bursts of unintentional humor. Hard to pick a favorite between an out-of-nowhere smash-cut to "Chernobyl" (where the series' big bad is hiding out) and the scene in which supporting actor Isaiah Mustafa — better known as "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" in the Old Spice commercials — says the line, "Hey, sorry I'm late … the captain's got me on these demonic murders" in his inimitable basso profundo. With dross like this, you get your pleasures where you can.