In the US: Mondays, 9/8c, Fox In the UK: Tuesdays, Amazon Instant Video
Since the 80s, there's been a move on US TV away from shows about lone heroes towards more ensemble pieces with a core cast of characters. Whether it's to provide variety, to support the number of plots of a long-running season, to give the main actor respite from arduous filming duties, or to hedge bets in case the lead isn't that popular, the trend is clear. When you look at remakes, it becomes even more obvious with formerly hero-centric shows taking on the trappings of ensemble pieces, whether it's Kolchak: The Night Stalker and Night Stalker, Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation or Hawaii Five-O and Hawaii Five-0.
Normally this is by design, so the trouble comes when you forget what kind of show you're making - is it a lone hero show or an ensemble show? Try to make both at the same time and you end up with something that's not good at either.
Lucifer is a case in point. As the name suggests, it's a show about the Devil himself. Adapted from the DC/Vertigo comic, it sees Miranda's Tom Ellis as the bored fallen angel Lucifer Morningstar taking a vacation from Hell in Los Angeles, where he has loads of fun running a night club, shagging and generally tempting mortals. One day, he runs into a police detective (Lauren German) when one of his protégés is murdered, and he starts trying to solve crimes with her so he can keep up his former day job of punishing evil-doers.
It's a somewhat silly idea but as I pointed out in my review of the first episode, it all works largely because of Ellis who's clearly having the time of his life as a decidedly English supporting character from the Old and New Testaments ("I'll rip his bollocks off then stamp on them one at a time"). He alternates between luxuriating in raining down diabolical torture and pain upon anyone who crosses him and camping up to the point you think he's impersonating Kenneth Williams. It's a marvellously engaging performance.
The trouble is that although the show is really all about Lucifer, the comic is more of an ensemble piece. And Lucifer takes on trappings of Lucifer to become partly an ensemble show as well, spending time with German, her young daughter, her ex- (Southland/True Blood/Arrow's Kevin Alejandro), Lucifer's fellow devil Maze (Lesley-Ann Brandt from Spartacus and The Librarians) and Lucifer's therapist/shag partner Rachael Harris (The Hangover, Suits, Surviving Jack). Which would be fine if any of them were in any way interesting or at least having as much fun as Ellis.
Perhaps if the show could also decide not to throw all its moments of characterisation at Lucifer but give each a few scraps from the table, it might be possible to care about them or even like them a little. But it doesn't. The result is you have Ellis, bright and shiny in centre-stage, surrounded by pale shadows who take away from his screen time with their tedious concerns, but don't really add anything except when they're acting as sounding boards and ways to expand on Lucifer's character.
The plots are also a little timid and repetitive. Murder followed by investigation in which Lucifer charms people and gets them to confess their deepest desires, all while German somberly and without any trace of real animation uses various synonyms of 'back off' to stop Lucifer from muscling in on her investigations, which Lucifer then studiously ignores. Even when Lucifer gets up to potentially exciting acts of sin, it's Fox at its tamest: a 'devil's threesome' and a foursome, none of which is ever shown, just the monring after when everyone wakes up with their clothes and underwear still intact.
The show works best when Ellis gets to enjoy himself and the writers provide lines and situations for him to really chow down on the scenery. It also becomes 100% more interesting whenever it's dealing with the supernatural. Interactions with fellow angel DB Woodside, sent by God to convince Lucifer to resume normal duties, give someone for Ellis to really bounce off, while Lucifer's acts of devilish punishment give the show a welcome edge of iron.
But for Lucifer to really work, it needs to decide whether it's an ensemble show or a lone hero show: either drop some of the additional characters to really focus on Lucifer or give them something to do that makes them more than mere stock characters.
Barrometer rating: 3 Would it be better with a female lead? No. Different, but not better TMINE's prediction: Could get a second season but a bit touch and go at the moment and needs to strengthen itself up to avoid a trip to ratings Hell
In the US: Sundays, 10pm ET/PT, Showtime. Starts January 17 In the UK: Not yet acquired
Back when Suits started on the USA Network, it was a refreshingly strong show about lawyers that took a different tack from most legal dramas - it almost never ventured into the courtroom. Instead, it was all about the moves and counter-moves that lawyers made outside the courtroom to force their opponents to concede without the cost and randomness of a trial. Unfortunately, over the years, Suits' real-world chess-playing fell by the wayside, in favour of relationship-based drama and comedy, but the first couple of seasons were hugely enjoyable pieces of Machiavellian manipulation.
A little known fact about Suits is that originally, it was going to be about investment bankers. The show did eventually venture into that realm, where it was clear there was a very powerful pecking order in the world that made those legal eagles look like mere sparrows.
Of course, there's a group of people who make investment bankers look like wrens in the scheme of things: hedge fund managers. Managing billions and potentially worth billions themselves, depending on how you look at them, they're either the oil that prevents the wheels coming off the modern financial world or sociopaths that destroy others purely for their own personal gain.
Billions is a show that gives us Suits to the max, in that a pits a hedge fund giant (Damian Lewis) against America's top lawyer, the district attorney (Paul Giamatti) in a chess match that would make even Harvey Specter balk. Lewis is a genius of analysis, both of figures and people. He's made billions by knowing how to combine the two, deducing who'll do what, why and how to invest accordingly. He's also worked out how to play the PR game - he may be worth billions, but he's given hundreds of millions to 9/11 charities and the families of all his co-workers who died during that tragedy.
There's also a very strong chance he's made at least part of his fortune through insider trading.
In turn, Giamatti has been raised since birth by his lawyer dad to think through every move and counter move white collar criminals might make. He knows whom to prosecute, when to prosecute and what it'll get him, and he knows how to play the PR game, too.
When an SEC official brings evidence to Giamatti that Lewis might have broken the law, Giamatti has to decide whether now is the time to take down Lewis or whether he's finally met the man who'll break his undefeated prosecuting streak. The best legal chess match in America is about to begin.
But while Billions is in many ways an excellent drama that has all the best qualities of Suits in its heyday, with smart people doing smart things to outwit each other, it's also just a little too Showtime for its own good.
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A UK media blog focusing on the best scripted TV from around the world, with daily news, views, exclusive reviews and good conversation. There's a bit of a bias towards the latest and greatest US TV, but we also cover Scandinavian, Canadian, European and Antipodean TV, as well as UK TV ranging from new Doctor Who to old Z Cars, and BBC4 to S4C.
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I'm Rob Buckley, a freelance journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of, although you might have heard me on Radio 5 Live's Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I've edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for trade magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider and the equally short-lived Death Ray and Filmstar magazines; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it "web site for urban hedonists" The Tribe. I'm freelance now and have contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network and TV Scoop.