Review: Shadowhunters (US: Freeform; UK: Netflix)

Young adult franchises never die

In the US: Tuesdays, 9/8c, Freeform (ABC Family)
In the UK: Wednesdays, Netflix

When The Shannara Chronicles hit our screens less than a week ago, it would have been tempting to assume that ‘peak fantasy bobbins’ for the year had already been achieved. Surely, nothing so weighed down by expositional dialogue, overly intricate world-building and general teenage angsting could be beaten. Yet here we are facing Shadowhunters, which makes The Shannara Chronicles look as uncomplicated as an episode of Pingu.

The success of Twilight and The Hunger Games in recent years at the cinema opened the flood gates for a whole bunch of dystopian young adult (YA) novels to be adapted. Some, such as The Maze Runner, fared well and continue to spawn sequels; The Mortal Instruments, on the other hand, didn’t do quite so well and the intended franchise never materialised. Yet, in an age where TV networks are hungry for more scripted drama – particularly one formerly family-oriented network that still carries evangelistic church services but that would like to go a bit darker by rebranding itself (cough, cough, ABC Family) – death at the movies for yet another (YA) YA franchise doesn’t mean the end of all adaptations.

And so we have Shadowhunters, YA2 TV series in which a teenager discovers she is the most important person in the entire world and so consequently is fought over by both all manner of forces, both good and evil – and boys. You’d think that that would be a relatively simple concept to put forth (again), but Shadowhunters is for today’s generation of wired kids, whose brains have been so sped up by constant digital communication that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is comparatively as mythos-lite as The Andy Griffiths Show.

So stick with me, grandpa/grandma, as I spell it out for you. Try to keep up.

Clary Fray is a perfectly ordinary teenager who wants to be an artist. Art college isn’t so impressed by her work, but they do like her creepy demon doodles for a graphic novel she has planned.

However, on her 18th birthday, she comes into her powers as a Shadowhunter, a human-angel hybrid that hunts demons. Yes, demons. And warlocks, vampires and in fact every other legendary beastie that likes to prey on humans, because all the stories are true. You just can’t see them unless you’re a Shadowhunter – or they let you.

So far so simple. Thing is, Clary never knew that she the daughter of a rogue Shadowhunter who used to work for a group of other rogue Shadowhunters based out of Chernobyl, the boss of whom fancied her and may even be her real dad. Her mum (Annie Wesching from 24) hid her, with the help of a warlock who wiped her memories, along with the Mortal Cup. 

I don’t know what the cup is. Sorry. But everyone seems to want it, particularly Chenobyl people.

Meanwhile, Wesching is marrying the Old Spice Guy (Isaiah Mustafa), who may be a traitor Shadowhunter and in league with ‘the Circle’. But fortunately, there’s a group of regular Shadowhunters, including hotty Jace (Dominic Sherwood), female underclad hotty Isobelle (Emeraude Toubia) and her broody brother Alec (Matthew Daddario), and they’re going to help Clary find out about her true calling. Which is going to involve rune tattooing (because of the demon venom – duh!) and stabbing people with glowy swords in reasonably competent but unconvincing martial arts fights.

But what will Clary’s best friend Simon (Alberto Rosende) make of this new life and the usually invisible Shadowhunters, particularly Jace, who finds Clary ‘interesting’? And will you be on team Jace or team Simon?

Based on the bestselling young adult fantasy book series The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare, Shadowhunters follows Clary Fray, who finds out on her birthday that she is not who she thinks she is but rather comes from a long line of Shadowhunters – human-angel hybrids who hunt down demons. Now thrown into the world of demon hunting after her mother is kidnapped, Clary must rely on the mysterious Jace and his fellow Shadowhunters Isabelle and Alec to navigate this new dark world. With her best friend, Simon, in tow, Clary must now live among faeries, warlocks, vampires and werewolves to find answers that could help her find her mother.

Nothing is as it seems, including her close family friend Luke, who knows more than he is letting on, as well as the enigmatic warlock Magnus Bane, who could hold the key to unlocking Clary’s past.

Is it any good?
If everything I’ve already told you sounds complicated, bear in mind that I’ve both simplified it and probably got some of it wrong, because it’s all told in a mixture of flashback and cross-cutting between all the different groups, and there’s a whole bunch of things that aren’t explained in the pilot and that I cribbed from Wikipedia. Maybe you have to have read the books to really grasp what’s going on, but you’d have thought that with an entire series to play with, the writers needn’t have tried to have stuck all the backstory in the first episode.

But they have, and in order to get the mythos out of the books and into the minds of viewers inside less than an hour, Shadowhunters forces its cast to go through contortions and to speak almost unutterable dialogue that no human being (or half-human/half-angel hybrid) could convincingly pull off. 

Largely, though, this is regular YA fare, with lots of “this is your destiny”-ing, hair and clothing being surprisingly important to the fate of all life (“Vampires like blondes”), etc. There’s nothing too unpalatable – the ancient order of Shadowhunters come into their power when they’re 18, the age of consent in most of the US in the 21st century, rather than 13 (the age of consent throughout most of recorded history), 16 (the age of consent in the UK) or 21 (the age at which the American Shadowhunters could get a drink after a hard day’s demon-slaying). Clary is a sensitive, bookish, artistic type (cf Twilight, The Vampire Diaries), rather than a budding industrial chemist. The Shadowhunters have a shiny HQ full of shiny computers rather than manky old books, which are so last millennium. And so on.

If you’re over the age of 21, not only will you know if you’re a Shadowhunter by now, I suspect Shadowhunters will be too young for you. If you’re over the age of 35, it’s probably not the sort of show you should be watching unless you want to get a reputation for yourself. It shouldn’t do any better than the movie, but this is an age of wonders and with Netflix already airing it around the world in every country except the US, I imagine it could become the new Buffy. It doesn’t deserve to be, since it doesn’t have an ounce of that show’s wit. But then the kids of today, huh? What you gonna do?


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; 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. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.