Lucifer on Fox: Pretty Lukewarm
Lucifer Morningstar got his start in Sandman #4, created by Neil Gaiman and Sam Keith. Based initially in part on David Bowie and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and fleshed out in a solo series by Mike Carey, Peter Gross, and Ryan Kelly, Lucifer runs the gamut — stories involve angels, demons, ghosts, fighting the armies of Heaven, creating a universe, walking in dreams, and Judeo-Christian mythos. The character that shows up in Lucifer on Fox is quite a bit different, and he might be hard for comics fans to recognize.
For one, he’s a brunette.
The show only gives us a little background to work with — Lucifer has left Hell, now lives in Los Angeles, and owns a nightclub. We don’t get much motivation for this, though Amenadiel, another angel sent to convince Lucifer to return to his post, is pretty pissed off about it.
If you’re a fan of “somewhat talented white guy solves crimes with an irritable, by-the-books, woman partner” shows, then the dynamic set up is familiar, if not totally stale. Lucifer’s crime-solving talent is coaxing people to confess outrageous secrets, and being incredibly attractive. To ladies. The show actually makes a point of making sure the audience knows that women find him irresistible, and that he certainly has sex with a lot of women, yes-hetero-ing him immediately. I’m not really invested in the idea of a queer Lucifer (though I think it would certainly make his sexy powers more interesting to write, and make sense for, you know, the devil to feel unconstrained by sexual preferences), but it felt very aggressive.
Our by-the-books law enforcement officer is Chloe Dancer, a single mom whose extraordinary ability is…not wanting to sleep with Lucifer, or tell him any secrets. The show negs her immediately, having her fellow cop patronize her on a crime scene, then has her be recognized by multiple characters for being topless in a movie, undermining her authority in the situation. She’s trying to earn her reputation back at her precinct, which is meant to be her motivation to hang out with a guy who won’t stop being slightly creepy at her (this also makes her seem like not a super competent detective out of the gate).
If this sounds like a less palatable Elementary, that’s basically how the episode played out — only Lucifer is less likable than Sherlock. Also, kind of a skeeze: while most white dude crime consultants in procedurals are poorly socialized because of their immense intelligence, Lucifer is just inappropriate because he’s a dick with magic powers. Chloe calls him out on his “dickish” behavior, but by the end of the episode she’s drinking in his bar, joking with him, and accepting his help in solving future crimes. He’s still hitting on her, of course, despite her calling him “repulsive.”
As someone who watches an almost embarrassing number of police procedurals on the regular, the crime itself is underwhelming and not that interesting of a case. The story beats are mainly there to show off how inappropriate Lucifer can make other people act, and it eschews a traditional 2 suspect build up by stuffing the show with one-time interactions with various humorous dopes, essentially.
There’s a lot of background information given on Chloe Dancer, the only non-comic main character thus far, but it didn’t help me get a sense of her as a character. The other woman lead, Mazikeen, gets about two minutes of screen time. She’s also gorgeous and mask-less, unlike her disfigured counterpart in the comics.
Lucifer gets a lot of quips, but not a lot of characterization. The show clearly wants to present Lucifer as an asshole with a hidden heart-of-gold, but doesn’t do a very good job of selling it. Obviously, he’s meant to thaw as the series continues, but it’s a jarring tonal change from a character who was meticulous in his knowledge of complex rules of etiquette and codes of conduct, and discerning in when to adhere to or break them. This Lucifer doesn’t seem to give a shit, except when he does, for reasons. Lucifer is moved by the fridging of a pop star he helped achieve success, but he is spurred on by a deep desire for “justice” and “punishment” for whoever committed the crime. This is immediately at odds with his previously established motivation as an immortal who has left behind ruling over Hell and who seems unconcerned with the eternal torment of any soul who was there.
The episode has the barely-considered Mazikeen chide him for being affected by living amongst humanity, implying he’s begun to care about the lesser mortals around him. It seems like a small conflict for a character that has such scope for story-telling. Just like making it a police procedural really hems in the universe as well. The show did not make me hopeful that this push and pull between immortal power and the thrills of humanity will be handled with any subtlety at all. There was also not a single surprise to be had from the pilot — from the structure to characterization to the same dull sexy nightclub aesthetic, everything was predictable. I just kind of want my Satan to be fresher than this, you know?
The acting and production is fine — the chemistry between the leads, Tom Ellis and Lauren German, would even be charming with better writing, but I am pretty tired of that same dynamic seen all over similar shows. Honestly, I think Elementary manages to subvert it more than any other, and it feels lazy for a show based on work that was considered so outside the box to aim for such a low bar. I’d love to see a show where the more practical partner wasn’t also forced to do the heavy lifting of reforming the extraordinary one, but this show has no hints of that kind of subversion in it. Lucifer also struggles to find a tone, unsure of how to blend violence and horror elements of the source (and Biblical inspiration) with the cop show dynamic they want to set up. It also clearly wants to be more ribald than a Fox show can get away with.
Perhaps the show is setting this up as a longer character study and I’ll be blown away, but nothing about this episode really made me want to find out. I was pleased to note that the supporting cast had several characters of color, and that the cast is fairly balanced in terms of gender, if not woman-heavy (when looking at IMDB). But the gender politics are already looking grim. Of the three grown women introduced, one is sexy and dead, one is a sexy and sexualized demon bartender, and the other is a cop who we know to be sexy despite her no-nonsense-ness, because she was topless in a movie when she was younger. If Lucifer wants to be sexy, the gender dynamics introduced in the series opener don’t really imply a particularly progressive sense of sexuality, or one that’s interesting or fresh. It’s also another deviation from the source — angels are Ken dolls below the waist in the comics.
Adding sex appeal and shrinking the universe to homicide investigations rather than cosmic warfare may have opened up Lucifer to a wider audience, but why bother using a niche licensed character? The show’s writing is derivative and lazy, making it a disappointment in terms of adaptation and on its own. After NBC’s uneven season of John Constantine, and the fresher vibes of another Fox genre procedural, Minority Report, I was hoping Lucifer would take a more innovative approach. Instead, I got what I should have expected: something bland with a familiar name slapped on top of it.