Torturing condemned souls for the rest of eternity might sound like fun, but as with all things you can only do it for so long before it starts to become a bit monotonous. After putting in a good few years as the King of Hell, Lucifer Morningstar (Tom Ellis) relinquishes his throne and heads to Los Angeles to open a night club and start enjoying his retirement. There the similarities between Fox’s latest variation on the crime-procedural-with-quirky-consulting-detective formula, Lucifer, and its comic book source material pretty much end. In the pilot episode, the devilishly charming fallen angel faces unexpected heartache when a mortal woman whom he helped to achieve fame and fortune dies in a hail of bullets, and with the help of cop Chloe Dancer (Lauren German) sets out to find a killer.
To lay the cards out on the table right away, Lucifer is not a good show – at least, not if this opener is any indication of the rest of the season. With that said, the pilot does make for a pretty entertaining watch, thanks to a sprinkling of witty dialogue, some artful direction, and Ellis’ hard-working charisma. Between the accent and his fantastical origins there are strong Doctor Who vibes with Lucifer, whose cheerful amorality makes him the kind of Devil you would want to get a drink with.
German is unfortunately given a lot less to do as Chloe, who has the unenviable task of playing straight man to Lucifer’s flamboyant playboy. The police detective is given a few bits of interesting backstory – in her youth she starred in a raunchy movie and has since been trying to live down her famous nude scene, and somewhere along the way she acquired a daughter and an ex-husband – but in this episode her role is mainly tied to a need to keep shuffling Lucifer along to the next stage of the investigation. Her ability to stay unruffled in the face of Lucifer’s outrageous behavior and constant flirting (she is also able to resist his angelic superpowers) make her a decent foil for the main character, but unfortunately a good poker face doesn’t make for a particularly memorable sidekick.
In the original comic books, Lucifer is for the most part disinterested in sex – to the point that he doesn’t actually possess a set of genitals. The show’s version of the character is markedly different; when we first meet Lucifer he’s speeding away from a session of copulation, and throughout the rest of the episode he demonstrates a particular fixation on sex above all other things. You would think that after the first few thousand years Lucifer wouldn’t be quite so easily distracted by a nice pair of legs, but perhaps his high libido goes hand in hand with his ability to draw out people’s desires.
It’s clear that Lucifer is banking a great deal on the sex appeal of lead Tom Ellis – a recent promo literally just showed his character sitting on a bed looking inviting, and the series’ tagline is “Hot as hell” – but you can’t sell an entire show based on sex appeal alone. Moreover, while Ellis’ version of Lucifer is certainly charming and likable, the sexual aspect of the character is pushed so hard that it actually stops being sexy – particularly after he utters the ovary-shrivelling phrase, “Take a trip to pound town” (later followed up with the equally abhorrent “naked cuddle time“). At the risk of generalizing, turning a female audience on takes a little more than a good-looking actor in a well-cut suit playing a character who talks about sex a lot. The entire Twilight phenomenon could probably have been derailed by Edward Cullen saying the words “naked cuddle time” at an early stage.
Lucifer’s first case of the week provides an early indicator that the crime procedural elements of this show are going to be pretty lazy: a person is a murdered, a small collection of suspects are introduced, and at the end of the episode one of those suspects is guilty. There’s no real mystery involved, barely any clues at all aside from the question of how the victim’s watch ended up on the hitman’s wrist, and the murder plot is really just an excuse to let Lucifer show off his persuasive powers. This isn’t exactly a death knell for the series – iZombie, for example, still manages to entertain despite the crime procedural aspects being cursory at best – but the prospect of watching Lucifer trawl through dull cases week after week isn’t particularly attractive. Ellis may be watchable, but he’s not a miracle worker.
That’s the crux of the problem; Lucifer has done itself a lot of favors by selecting a strong lead performer, but Ellis can’t carry the show all by himself. The show’s writing is too tame to fully embrace all the implications of a main character who is literally the Devil, and the most risqué material amounts to a bit of off-screen torture and a lot of off-screen sex. Even Lucifer’s ally Maze (Lesley-Ann Brandt) has been cleaned up from the comic book version – her trademark deformed features and garbled speech cast aside in favor of the same uniform prettiness that occupies the rest of the pilot. Lucifer may be a smooth talker, but this show is in desperate need of some rougher edges.
Lucifer returns to Fox next Monday at 9/8 c with “Lucifer, Stay. Good Devil”. Check out the promo below.