PILOT LITE: Lucifer (2016 tv series)

Posted: January 28, 2016 in Pilot Lite
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Back in the 80’s, DC Comics were going through a period of constant creative shake-ups. They re-booted their entire universe with Crisis on Infinite Earths, deconstructed what it means to be a superhero with Watchmen, and breathed dark new life into Batman with Year One and Dark Knight Returns. They also re-imagined a long stagnant character, cut away everything but the name, and turned it into one of the greatest stories to ever be committed to the page. Neil Gaiman took Sandman from a 40’s pulp-style hero and re-sculpted the title into an existential trip through human consciousness and the history of myth. It’s a series with almost no faults and stands as a classic even amongst a decade that seemed to churn out classic comics weekly. Within that series, Dream of The Endless, the protagonist, traveled to many realms of legend. Early on, he made his way through Hell and held court with its ruler, Lucifer Morningstar.
Lucifer made sporadic appearances within the series, but he was definitely a popular and mesmerizing character (as he should be). Even though his role was never more than supporting, his machinations (and choice to abandon Hell) were felt throughout DC Comics’ Vertigo universe. So much so that in 1999 the character was given a spin-off minseries which eventually lead to a full, ongoing comic by Mike Carey. The series ran for 75 issues and thoroughly fleshed out its protagonist as well as the dark world he inhabited.

Now, ten years after the final issue of the comic series, Lucifer has made the leap to television screens. Fox premiered the series to much fanfare and, considering the source and title, no small amount of controversy. That taken, the show (including the premise, lead actor/character and backstory) is ultimately fairly toothless. With network TV comes a whole host of limitations that would be burdensome on the most well-adapted Vertigo story. And “most well-adapted” this certainly is not. That’s not to say it’s bad, but it definitely has its fair share of issues.

luThe set-up is essentially the same, Lucifer abandons his domain to retire amongst the humans and run a piano bar, Lux, in L.A. However, that’s about where the similarities end. The series makes the peculiar decision to turn Lucifer into an ad-hoc detective obsessed with punishing the wicked. On its own, that’s not a terrible premise, but as an adaptation of this particular comic it’s an odd and unfortunate turn that blunts any sort of stand-out elements the show could have had. I don’t know why, but for some reason networks love adapting Vertigo Comics into police procedurals. It’s a weird trend that is even more out of place here than it is in iZombie, which has flourished despite being a zombie detective drama with only the most basic connections to that which it’s adapted from. The only other Vertigo television series was Constantine. While not an exact procedural, it had enough of those elements added in that it sure seems like it was no mistake.

foxSo, Lucifer (now a detective) has the power to get people to confess their sins to him. In that case, shouldn’t every episode be, like, 5 minutes long? It’s a powerset that’s a little too on-the-nose for me and again, dulls any sharp elements the story may have. I don’t recall any specific power in the comic that you could easily point to for Lucifer. He was pretty “all powerful” but mostly just had a knowledge of magic a la John Constantine (but with less bluffing). I realize that’s not the most visually striking set of powers, but it’s certainly more interesting on a character level. I’m not surprised the subtlety was removed, but it’s still disappointing. Comic television tends to stick to one obvious power for any character. That’s fine for heroes like Flash, who runs fast and is defined by that power. But for those more nuanced characters, it’s a hindrance. Again, I go to iZombie. On the show, Liv (renamed from Gwen, in the book) has the power to see people’s memories and take on their personality when she eats their brains. In the comic, that aspect is ditched early on and more of a focus is placed on the existential difference between “Oversouls” and “Undersouls” and the conflict between instinct and rational thought. So, just a tad different.

As for the character, Tom Ellis does a fine job in the role. I can certainly not fault him one bit for the character, as written. He chews scenery when appropriate and can be menacing in equal measures. What I do take issue with is the characterization/writing of the lead. Lucifer, on the screen, is shown as haughty and aloof. He’s above humanity and as such, looks down on them. However, with that he’s given a fair amount of otherworldly naiveté. That doesn’t really fit with the character. He has been observing and interacting with humanity, literally, forever. As such, he should be more worldly and more experienced than even the most knowledgeable human. There’s an odd moment in the pilot where a character reminds him that threatening someone is against the law and he reacts as if he had no idea. I feel like the literal Devil would know full and well what laws man has in place, if only to more fully break them.

amThere are only two other characters from the comic to make the transition to television. The first is Amenadiel, played by D.B. Woodside. He doesn’t do much in the pilot aside from offer Lucifer some vague threats about returning to his duty and only serves the purpose of nailing home the show’s premise. However, I’m guessing he’ll be a bigger player as the series progresses. Amenadiel was a fairly similar character in the comic. Both versions have utter contempt that is barely kept in check for the Lightbringer, but need him to achieve Heavenly ends.


Wow. Practically twins.

The second is Mazikeen, renamed Maze (likely for ease of pronunciation) as played by Lesley-Ann Brandt. Her role isn’t exactly explained in the pilot. She’s Lux’s beautiful bartender and it isn’t immediately clear how she’s connected to Lucifer, but their relationship seems to go back to before he left Hell. In the comic, Mazikeen’s a demon who’s completely devoted to Lucifer. She conceals a horrifically mutilated half-face with a Phantom of the Opera-esque mask. She also had an annoying lisp-like speech pattern due to her injury. Neil Gaiman admitted later that he would never have given her that trait had he known that she was going to be in more than a couple of scenes in his comic. Naturally, this is one of the changes that makes perfect sense for the television series.

The other major characters, namely Lauren German’s Chloe and Kevin Alejandro’s Dan, are fairly stock roles. Chole is a by-the-book cop who puts too much of herself into her work and (obviously) resists the assistance of a loose-cannon like the Lord of Lies, but is none-the-less impressed by his results. Two partners with differing policing styles forced to work together? How fresh. Meanwhile Dan is her ex-husband. He’s slightly antagonistic and it’s hinted that his police work might not exactly be above-board. I like to imagine Alejandro is just playing Brother Blood from Arrow. He faked his death in season 2 and moved to L.A. under an assumed identity. That works, right?


“I made it!”

Premise and characterization aside, the show is actually a lot of fun. I mentioned the great job that Tom Ellis does, and it’ll be nice to see how he grows with the character. It has a lot to overcome given the trappings of the police, crime-of-the-week structure. But if it finds a way to get past that and focus on the damaged psyche of an immortal Miltonian loner who can’t help but get involved in strange and unique adventures, then it could turn into a pretty crazy hour of television. Let’s hope the season slowly gets more into the supernatural side (with an appearance or two by one of The Endless or even Constantine?) and maybe a second season could abandon it entirely and forge a new story that fits the character better. That’s assuming, of course, that Fox (the one-season-wonder) doesn’t cancel it first. With that all I have to say is, I sure hope [insert some sort of wordplay on “Sympathy for the Devil” or “Give the Devil his due”]!!


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