“I’m turning 18, not going on some epic journey,” says Clary Fray, played by newcomer Kat McNamara. Many “on the nose” lines like that one are in the new Freeform (formerly ABC Family) series, Shadowhunters. Adapted from Cassandra Clare’s wildly popular “The Mortal Instruments” series, producer and director McG reboots the supernatural drama for television with a whole new cast and aesthetic.
Turning 18 means more to Clary Fray than it does to the typical teenager. What starts as a normal day takes a drastic turn for the worst when Clary discovers a secret underworld of demons, warlocks and shadowhunters. Her destiny becomes intertwined in this world when her mother is kidnapped by Valentine, a shadowhunter-gone-bad who is looking for something called “The Mortal Cup.”
The first book, “City of Bones,” was made into a film in 2013 and received a negative critical reception and disappointing box office numbers. In hindsight, I gave the film more of a pass than it deserved. The movie was confusing, especially if you hadn’t read the books, and full of too many cringe-worthy “teen movie” clichés.
From what I had seen from its first trailers, I was hesitant to hope that Shadowhunters would right the wrongs of the movie. Not to say that I think “The Mortal Instruments” is standout fiction. It borrows a lot of familiar plot elements, the relationship drama gets tedious and the emotional twists don’t always feel earned. Yet, the wide variety of characters is charming, and the story is ultimately entertaining, which is why I continue to dive back into Clare’s new “Shadowhunter” books.
Because of its huge fandom, there are some expectations to be had with Shadowhunters. I’ve only screened the pilot, and it’s not bad. But it’s not great either. It is acceptable in that it provides a nice setup for Clary’s story, introducing us to the main players and providing a glimpse of the supernatural underworld. Unlike the movie, it doesn’t rapidly throw a ton of exposition at us but eases us into its world and gives just enough to get us interested and coming back for more.
As for the new cast, I’m still holding out judgement on Kat McNamara and Dominic Sherwood as the show’s two leads: Clary and Jace. There wasn’t much time in the first episode for them to establish a rapport, so I can’t say if they have any chemistry. However, the good thing about a TV series format is that it allows things to grow at a slower pace. In contrast, a few supporting characters made an impression immediately. Alberto Rosende is adorable as Simon, which comes as no surprise since Simon is one of the few characters with the best material. Emeraude Toubia is right at home with seductive badass Isabelle. Finally, Harry Shum Jr. looks fierce as the High Warlock of Brooklyn, Magnus Bane.
On a technical level, hokey effects are expected with a smaller TV budget, and the costumes are a bit corny. McG, known for producing early ’00s gem The O.C., directs the first episode. He brings some finesse to the action sequences with fast cuts that make the fights look more intense and long takes that help us take in new locales, like the rundown cathedral that houses the shadowhunters’ Institute.
There’s a lot more to come on Shadowhunters, which is the main selling point of the pilot. It’s fast and action-packed with an attractive cast. The serial format is the right fit for the story. Whether or not the actors can handle the heavy material that is inevitably coming their way remains to be seen, but if the writers can find a way to channel Clare’s entertaining and suspenseful style of writing to the screenplay, it might not matter.
Shadowhunters is made for its fanbase. Book fans will be happy to see an adaptation that better exemplifies the spirit of the novels. New fans might be intrigued by the first episode. While the pilot is far from perfect and won’t entice an audience beyond its intended demographic, I can’t deny seeing some true potential in Shadowhunters.
Shadowhunters premieres Tuesday, January 12 on Freeform.