It’s a shame The A.V. Club recently published a list of the least essential shows on TV, because it means Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments has to wait a year to earn that dubious distinction. The series, based on the young adult books by Cassandra Clare, is not exactly the strongest book-to-TV-show adaptation out there. For one thing, it has a lot of ground to cover to explain its complicated world. Unfortunately, the TV show tries to cover all of it in the pilot. It’s never a good sign when one episode has to use multiple time jumps just to explain what’s going on.
The story follows 18-year-old Clary Fray (Katherine McNamara), who learns, after a number of confusing things happen to her and around her, that her mother has hidden their magical lineage from her. She seems to have had good reason to have kept the secret, too: Mother and daughter are quickly beset by a number of violent bad guys. Clary, meanwhile, keeps drawing mysterious symbols on her notebooks that may or may not be connected to what’s happening, and a brooding handsome guy keeps swooping in to save the day.
The symbols would be mysterious, if the show wasn’t so insistent on explaining everything as quickly as possible. For example, a joking reference to someone’s love life soon gets shoehorned into a murder investigation, just in case you weren’t sure who was pining for whom. Given that there’s already a failed movie adaptation of this material, you might expect the creators to take advantage of the TV format to try and tell the story more slowly, but you’d be wrong. And without Lena Headey and Jonathan Rhys Myers to ease everyone through the clunkier material, as the movie did, the nuts and bolts show. Sometimes, almost literally: This is one of the cheapest looking shows to grace a major television outlet in a while. The runes on people’s skin look a bit more like serious skin inflammations than magic symbols. Somehow, “weird rash” isn’t as alluring as “mystic tattoo” on series bad boy Jace Wayland (Dominic Sherwood), who serves as Clary’s guide to her new world. Beyond that, the weapons look like off-brand lightsabers or light-up toys bought at a 4th of July fireworks display, regardless of the impressive sound effects the production team added during the editing process.
It’s unclear if better actors could have made more of this material, but as it is, everyone is a bit listless. As Clary, McNamara gets tasked with some of the worst of it, since her character is supposed to go through most of the spectrum of human emotion in about an hour. She’s happy! She’s sad. She’s flirting! She’s angry. Not familiar with McNamara? That may be because the show could charitably be described as a “breakthrough” for most of the cast. Recognizable actors include sexy Old Spice dude Isaiah Mustafa—here to glower as Clary’s mom’s sort of-beau Luke—and Harry Shum Jr. of “Mike Chang from Glee” fame, who co-stars as sexy warlock/nightclub impresario Magnus Bane. And that’s about it—though we should all be able to include “sexy warlock/nightclub impresario Magnus Bane” on our business cards.
It’s possible future episodes will emerge from the clutter of the mythology to tell a fun adventure story. And there’s still time to delve into the full glory of the Jace/Clary love saga, which takes some particularly intriguing turns in the source material. Plus, the pilot has a number of added storylines that promise to diverge sharply from the source material, which may or may not be a wise choice. It’s hard to say how much there is to appeal here for anyone who isn’t deeply committed to watching a TV adaptation of their favorite YA series. Fans of endless exposition, rejoice?
Not even the directorial efforts of McG can salvage what’s happening here. There are some mild action sequences, but they don’t do much to elevate the proceedings. Fight scenes don’t have quite as much impact when you’re still trying to figure out who everyone is and why they’re throwing punches. McG is credited as an executive producer, so it’s possible he’ll stick around to guide the series a bit further, but it’s hard to pinpoint what his influence on the show might be. Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments has the rare honor of being wildly complex and still wildly bland.