Every storytelling medium has an inherent structure that the stories that use that medium have to fit in order for them to work. While there are always exceptions, movies have to fit a certain length, musicals have to seamlessly work in song and dance, and theme park attractions have an array of operational necessities. Television, for better or for worse, has to grab you with the first episode. This isn’t necessarily fair as the producers have less than an hour to set up characters, introduce the plot, excite us, and create a world that could tell years of stories. But it is the way it is. We don’t tend to give a show a shot at week 2 if week 1 leaves us unfulfilled.
These differences in mediums is why people get paid a lot of money to adapt stories. With rare exceptions, are adaptations lifted directly from the source material. You need to make the story fit the way it is being told. Shadowhunters could have used some more adapting.
The new Freeform series is an adaption of The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, which was adapted into an underperforming 2013 film. (I presume the reason they changed the title of the series was to distance themselves from the film). At the recent TCA session for the series, the creative team discussed how television was a better fit for the series because they could be truer to the books given the extra hours of storytelling. Perhaps they should have been less faithful.
To be fair, I have never read the books nor have I seen the film. These characters and mythology are new to me. I have to admit that I have no idea what is going on and I am not sure that I care to find out. Based on the success of the book franchise, I have no doubt that Clare has created a fantastic story. It is just that the first 44 minutes did not grab me. The episode features nested flashbacks which don’t help us understand this world of magic and demons. They also introduce a variety of characters without explaining who is who.
But here is what I’ve got. Shadowhunters follows Clary Fray who is turning 18 and becomes exposed to a world of demons, warlocks, and other supernatural elements. Everyone is searching for a McGuffin called “The Mortal Cup,” but I don’t know why. I am also not sure that I know how each of the characters relate to each other. It is possible to introduce a series with a deep mythology and mysteries successfully, just look at Lost, but Shadowhunters misses by trying to do too much without making the mysteries enticing enough for a return viewing.
ABC Family/Freeform has tried the “girl finds out she has super powers” show before with The Nine Lives of Chloe King. I felt this earlier show was much more successful in grabbing us into the world of the show without having the viewing having to use Wikipedia to figure out what is going on. Chloe King only scored one season, which is not encouraging for the Shadowhunters which the network is hanging their rebranding on.
If I had read the books, I am sure I would have enjoyed the show more. I would understand what is happening and the characters would mean something to me. Unfortunately, my only highlight was seeing Isiah Mustafa, the Old Spice guy” on television once again.
I am thrilled for The Mortal Instruments fans who can relive the books that they love on the television. If you are not familiar with the books, skip the series. If you want to know what this series is about, read the books. I am guessing the story fits that medium just fine.