Just last week, Shadowhunters premiered on Freeform, the new and improved (and certainly pandering to a more modern audience) ABC Family. The name of the show may sound familiar: the series of books it is based on (The Mortal Instruments, by young adult author Cassandra Clare) was first taken to the screen in a failed film starring Lily Collins and Jamie Campbell Bower back in 2013. Unfortunately, it opened to a poor showing (from critics and fans alike), but was given a chance for new life in the form of an upcoming TV show. In a post-Harry Potter world, our film screens are clogged with iterations of the same book franchises over and over again, so perhaps it was a smart choice to move the adaptation to television instead, especially considering the successes of other young adult books-turned-tv shows, such as The CW’s The 100. So far, it’s looking pretty good.
Shadowhunters is about Clary Fray (played by Katherine McNamara) a teenage girl who finds out her mother has been shielding her from another world full of demons and other supposedly mythical creatures. The titular shadowhunters (and turns out Clary’s parents are shadowhunters, which makes her one too) are sworn to protect the mundane (their word) world from demons, all behind a glamour that should make them invisible to humans. The show starts with Clary’s world crashing down around her. Her mother is kidnapped by Valentine, a former shadowhunter who led a rebellion against the rest of them and tried to establish total dominance over the world, in an attempt to find something called “the Mortal Cup,” which, along with vague symbolic importance has the power to create more shadowhunters and also control demons. In order to find her mother, Clary must immerse herself in the world of shadowhunters and accept a part of herself she didn’t know existed before.
Clary unfortunately does not shine yet as the show’s star, no thanks to an adequate (but not great) script, and her presence is diminished in the charisma of the supporting cast. Her best friend Simon Lewis (played by Latin@ actor Alberto Rosende) is a “mundane” and one of the high points of the show. Simon has clearly been assigned the role of nerdy best friend, in the vein of popular characters such as Teen Wolf’s Stiles Stilinski, and he’s in love with Clary, who naturally has a romantic connection to the mysterious shadowhunter Jace (Dominic Sherwood). Another predictable and obvious love triangle takes center stage, but whereas usually the two males involved in YA love triangles are equally uninteresting and bland, Simon and Jace are pleasant to watch. Simon in particular is a joy; he is totally transparent (it is only Clary who does not see that he is in love with her) and not obnoxiously self-deprecating, which is a hole that this archetype often falls into. Jace is refreshing in that he’s actually charming (Sherwood clearly avoiding the mistake that Campbell Bower made in his own interpretation) rather than just an asshole, so that the audience actually cares when his painful past is hinted at.
Another high point is Alec and Isabelle Lightwood, Jace’s adopted brother and sister. Alec (Matthew Daddario) is the eldest of the three, and he’s endearingly stodgy and cranky, seeing himself as their protector. His storyline is one to look forward to, as he deals with his repressed homosexuality (in a fantasy series, no less!) and his love for Jace. Isabelle (played by another Latin@ actor, Emeraude Toubia) is the opposite of Alec in every way. She’s comfortable and in control of her sexuality, and does not lack for confidence in her fighting abilities either. She’s fun to watch and Toubia shines during Isabelle’s genuine moments, including a charged scene with Clary (personally, here’s hoping for more than one queer character in the show). However, at other times she comes off as inauthentic (her wooden “Jace is the ultimate protector,” feels particularly false when said by Isabelle, who actually appears superior to Jace in every single way), dripping with forced femme fatality, though it remains to be seen whether that is an intentional choice. Yet in the few moments they’ve had together, the chemistry is there, and Alec’s fond and un-self-conscious, “I love you, too,” was actually the sweetest, most believable familial moment in the entire first two episodes.
The true draw in this show is in its potential. The writing team made incredibly smart choices when taking it from book to television screen: making Luke a policeman rather than a bookstore owner, blending technology into the world of the shadowhunters rather than keeping them in pointless antiquity, casting more actors of color as the main, supposedly-white characters (though readers of the book will know that it was full of explicitly non-white supporting characters)—it is clear that the show has a smart team behind it. The real test will be in the staying power of the show and the choices they make with original storylines. A book is often limited in its POV and one can only hope the writers will explore more interesting and previously unexplored aspects of the book series (such as the rarely-seen relationship between closeted Alec Lightwood and the warlock Magnus Bane, who so far has only made camero appearances).
As far as the first two episodes go, Shadowhunters is a strong opening statement from Freeform, if not as a new series itself. It’s edgy, it’s modern (and not in the forced way that an older uncle will reference “MySpace” in an attempt to connect with his young family), and it’s fun. Also, unlike other shows set in New York City, it features people of color in every type of role, making it feel much more like the world we actually see, rather than the one the television world tries to present us with time and time again. The premise is established well enough, though the script needs desperate work, and it has a strong cast, Clary and the show’s villains (who are simply not threatening in any way) notwithstanding. Only the rest of the season can say whether Shadowhunters will grow beyond the possibilities it’s creating or fall into predictability. However, it is definitely worth finding out.