Shadowhunters is Finally Getting Good: A Writer’s Perspective
This is going to get long, so basically this is where I’m going:
1. Shadowhunters is still finding itself, similar to how Buffy the Vampire Slayer kinda sucked until it grabbed onto its “Monsters as Life Metaphors” structure halfway through Season 2.
2. Because The Mortal Instruments series is such a catastrophic narrative failure, Shadowhunters doesn’t have compelling plot points to string their own original story between, the way True Blood was able to do with their own sub-par source material.
3. The strong character writing is just starting to free the show from the restrictions of its source material.
Where We Are Now
-The company that owns the rights to The Mortal Instruments is using Shadowhunters to return on a damaged investment. They bought the rights to a popular book series, and made a movie that bombed so hard that when the numbers came in, they stopped production on the sequel within weeks. They lost a shit ton of money on what should have been a good investment, and were unwilling to throw too much good money after bad, which is why there wasn’t much investment in the first season. The first season’s low budget affects more than the special effects. It plays into who they can hire, how long they have to rehearse, how long they have to shoot, every element of production.
-The source material is shit, and it’s an albatross around the show’s neck. The movie sucked so hard because it was a pretty faithful adaption of the books, which are torturously long, and full of one note characters who only exist to spout faux-clever dialogue, or facilitate CC’s incest fantasies. They are driven by entirely by plot, not character, which makes for flat fiction.
-The first season had to be, to an extent, experimental. They had to figure out the right mix between what they had to keep to engage book fans, and what they had to add to make it possible for it to be a TV show, because the book doesn’t have enough material to be a couple seasons of TV.
-The first season worked to clear the very low bar of of being less racist, tokenist, slut-shaming, girl-hating, bi-phobic, and all around disgusting than the books.
-Successfully moving past the tragedy of the movie into an expanded episode order and expanded budget mean that season two is essentially a brand new show.
- That season is trying to fight its way free of what it had to be in the first season, and the failure of the movie, and the ball and chain of the books.
1. The Show Has Turned Every Pointless, Cardboard Dialogue Spouter from the Books into a Compelling, Nuanced Character, and Now There Are Too Many
The book characters have interesting things on their character sheets, but never become interesting. The show has recomposited characters out of the character elements used in the books, and created complex, compelling, nuanced characters, who have ties and relationships to eachother, who are impacted by the world around them, and who make decisions and affect the world around them and eachother, instead of just waiting around for Clary to discover her special rune magic, or for Magnus to portal them somewhere.
Unfortunately, a bunch of cardboard cutouts creating obstacles to, and eventually enabling brother-sister fucking don’t suck up too much plot time, but 11 suddenly worth-while characters (Clary, Simon, Alec, Isabelle, Jace, Maryse, Jocelyn, Luke, Raphael, Maia, Magnus) plus a few new additions we are invested in to some degree (Lydia, Aldertree, Iris), and a few random additions that don’t seem to do much but create more dialogue and scoot plots along (Valentine, Meliorn, Raj, Max, Dot, Gretel, Suspiciously Important Girl With Glasses) all end up battling for screen time, to the detriment of each other.
For every charming interaction between Maia and Simon, we don’t get to see Luke dealing with Jocelyn’s death. When we get a glimpse into the tenderness of Magnus and Raphael’s relationship, there’s less time to see Magnus and Alec learn where they cross and divide. When we see that Alec and Maryse still love each other, even if the have so much shit left to work through , that takes potential minutes away from someone trying to talk to Jace about being abducted and tortured. There is so much potential, and it’s not possible to turn all of it into plot when there are only 45 minutes a week to work with.
1A. Except Valentine, Who is A Spectacularly Shitty Villain
Valentine is one long HHHHHHHZZZZZZMMMMMMMHHHHHhhzzzzmmmmhhhh on an evil kazoo.
A good villain is the hero of their own story, but they have to be more than that. A good villain has to taunt you with the possibility that they could be the hero of your story. They have to want something in a way that you can understand the wanting, even if what they want isn’t something you would want.
Kylo Ren is a good villain. He wants to be a super powerful Jedi and big deal leader in the Empire and the movie shows you that he wants that because he’s actually a pathetic little snot streak, drowning in his inability to live up to the standards of toxic masculinity around him, while wearing a silly helmet. The desire makes sense.
Spider-Man Villains are good villains. They are typically super smart scientists trying to solve a problem, but their science gives them some sort of mutation that casts them out of the society they were trying to improve.
Magneto is a great villain. A holocaust survivor who believes he sees the writing on the wall and won’t let history repeat itself.
(Quick fact about Oncethrown: I went to go see the Johnny Depp version of Sweeny Todd in theaters in college and didn’t realize he was the villain until the very last scene. (The last last scene. Even after he throws Mrs. Lovett in the oven) Because he was unfairly jailed by a man who wanted him gone so that he could rape Sweeny todd’s wife to be raped into insanity and leave her out on the street to rot, and I was totally onboard with the quest for vengeance up until the moment the blood started pouring out if his neck.)
Valentine is just generically evil. He was born into the most powerful class in his world, was annoyed that his society wouldn’t let him become even more powerful, and now is experimenting on a class he already could kill with little to no repercussions, and working to eradicate them… because he can?
He doesn’t love or care about anyone either. There’s nothing to hold onto about Valentine. He’s just an opposing force. He could be a block of wood with angry eyebrows and the effect on the plot would be about the same.
1B. Except Aldertree, Who We Were Promised Would Be And Interesting Villain is Just A Random Force For Bad.
Aldertree came in to bring the erratic New York Institute back under Clave control. And he started out doing that. He threw the downworlders out of the Institute, he left Jace to rot in jail because he wouldn’t swear total fealty to the Clave, he nearly let Alec die because he threatened very important Shadowhunter traditions by refusing to marry a suitable woman in order to date a man, and a downworlder.
The yin-fen plot line originally was in this same functional but boring vein, until the last episode (spoilers) where he was clearly trying to get Izzy to trade sex for drugs (end spoilers). Generic Rapist Evil not interesting either. All he ended up doing was giving Alec a “Reclaiming the Institute Plotline” which would have been a really, really good piece in that whole “Effects of Institutionalizing Discrimination” theme… if any time had been devoted to it at all this season. Like… Alec originally ceded his authority to Lydia. The way he came for Aldertree just wasn’t given the building blocks to be satisfying.
2. The Books Didn’t Have Layers, and the Show is Trying to Graft an Interesting Theme Onto the Book’s Pocked and Diseased Foundation
The books are just an excuse for incest. The show is attempting to develop a narrative about institutionalized discrimination and oppression, and how characters are influenced by the way that affects their societies, upbringings, relationships and lives.
There is a really underdeveloped attempt at this in the books which more or less boils down to “Shadowhunters are mean to downworlders, and it’s not totally fair, but they are still the heroes, because they are all described as sexually attractive.”
The show is running into a lot of complications as they try to smoosh this theme onto the source material they have to work with.
-The main plot of “Evil McEvil is a Racist Who Wants To Start A Genocide Because Of Evil and Overt Racism”is sucking up all the air in the room for more compelling and important elements of the show, such as every idea presented in Maia and Simon’s conversation about how Shadowhunters pretend that everyone is on the same team, but don’t understand what the daily existence of downworlders is really like in a world that Shadowhunters essentially rule.
Or Alec’s struggle to be both a Shadowhunter and a gay man falling in love with a downworlder.
Or Isabelle and Lydia’s season one speaking out about Law vs. Justice in the Shadowhunter world.
Or Clary’s 10 minute plot about not being trained well enough to be a real shadowhunter, but knowing too much to ever be a mundane again
The adherence to the main plot of book one and two is one of the things turning Clary into a mess of a white savior who doesn’t learn from her mistakes. She’s the entry point character, she’s bringing us into this world, and she’s the hero of the story. So… she’s white and straight with magic powers, trying to solve racism and homophobia in a story where the whole society she enters into is built around it, and has been for centuries.
3. The Clusterfuck of Potential We Are Working Out Of Now
So 2.08 and 2.09 I think prove that we are watching a show that is just about to get there. Both of these episodes had insular plots solved within the confines of the episode while also having consequences in the season stretching story.
Good characters are interacting with each other in interesting ways. (Except Lydia. Where is Lydia? I love her and I want her back) There are some growing pain failures (everything Izzy has said and done all season), some serious fuck ups (the lack of consent before the lack of malec sex scene) and a lot of unfortunate leaning on shitty and easy tropes (Izzy and Raphael fall into a drug fueled affair, Alec pushes Magnus into sex in a 3 minute side plot, Valentine exists and we have to watch him) But they are setting up more and more really solid pieces with places to go and I’m excited to see it happen.
4. The Things They Need to Fix (this is mostly rambling)
-Give fewer characters better plots per episode instead of trying to give everyone a couple minutes of screen time.
-Give characters goal and personality and development driven season arcs that create plots instead of having them constantly reacting to plot elements that are not character driven (purely from a writing standpoint, this is the biggest flaw with Isabelle’s plot line. The addiction drives her plot, not her personality, and Aldertree doesn’t have a character based reason to give her the drug to being with. “Just because I’m an asshole” isn’t really good enough. That’s why Alec is the best part of season 1. Everything he says and does is driven by a couple easily defined elements of his character.)
-If you are going to sell the diversity aspect of your show, be aware of the full context of the plot lines you are assigning your actors. It’s not great that there are 4 latinx actors, and the two of them with accents are in a drug dealing/addiction/sex for drugs plot line. It’s great that your only canon couple is a gay interracial couple. It’s great that they got a really sweet build up, and they have great communication scenes and they are really building a strong relationship. It’s not great that they do not touch while a lot of totally gratuitous sex is happening around them.
-Figure out who you really need, and jettison the dead weight.
-Why is Raj still on this show? All he does is say nasty shit about women. He’s disgusting, he’s boring, and he’s pointless. Literally every single time he’s on screen he could be replaced by someone we care about and it would tighten the episode.
-We ditched Robert because as far as the impact on the main characters goes, he’s a redundancy on Maryse’s storyline, and she has all the good elements.
-Aldertree is pointless. Maryse could have had Aldertree’s “WE ARE REALLY FUCKING GOING WITH WHAT THE CLAVE SAYS” storyline and it would have been a lot more interesting with the rest of the plot.Lydia could have had that plot too. “You fucked up at the wedding, reign in this nonsense or we are shipping you our to wrangle island”