Shadowhunters is an infinite pit of visual and storytelling atrocities

Here’s the thing about Shadowhunters: I didn’t expect it to be good. Cassandra Clare’s books were heavily derivative but highly readable fluff, and the movie based on City of Bones was awful, but entertaining. I rather thought that the material would be much better suited to the episodic format of a television show, as the source material is very obviously influenced by shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sadly, this show is just terrible, and not even hilariously so. It’s just really, really, horribly bad in basically every way. I even watched the second episode as well thinking that surely it must get better, but that’s just not the case.

The first thing I noticed was that Clary’s hair is godawful. Looking at photos of the actress (Katherine McNamara) online, she does appear to be (possibly) a sort of natural strawberry blonde, but until I looked it up I would have sworn that orange-y mess on her head was a wig. Now I have to admit that it’s actually just a mix of hideous dye-job and turning up the saturation in post-production. Either way, though, it’s distractingly unnatural without feeling like part of any cohesive sense of style. Instead, it’s just a bright orange blob in the middle of every scene, threatening to burn itself into the viewer’s retinas.

Clary’s hair is really just the tip of this show’s visual atrocity iceberg, though. While not literally everything in the show looks bad, it’s pretty overwhelmingly cheap, ugly, and unoriginal, from hair to makeup to costumes to visual effects. It’s a colossal missed opportunity, if nothing else, since one of the main reasons to watch these sorts of urban fantasy shows is to see sexy people wearing hot clothes while fighting cool-looking monsters. Unfortunately, there has to be something distinguishing about a show to set it apart from the rest, and the styling of Shadowhunters is lazy, low-budget, and boring.

A short and probably incomplete list of examples:

  • Magnus Bane’s makeup, which makes him look like a 14-year-old goth kid who doesn’t know how to put on makeup yet.
  • Isabelle’s white club costume, which is ill-fitting and wildly unflattering, especially with the clown-like makeup they put on her.
  • Jace’s whole look. Sure, he’s a type, but it’s just too on the nose.
  • The shadowhunters’ seraph blades, which function like lightsabers and look like amorphous pieces of pointy clear acrylic hot glued to the end of LED flashlights.
  • The runes on the shadowhunters’ bodies are somewhere between weird birthmarks and weird rashes, and when they glow they look positively sickening.
  • The outfit Isabelle lends to Clary.
  • The monster effects are very uneven. Some, like the tentacle-faced demons, are almost okay-looking, but mostly they look cheesy.
  • All of the warlocks’ magic effects look silly.
  • The Institute is full of generic sci-fi computer stuff, which is a both a huge departure from the source material and at odds with the rest of the show’s aesthetic.
  • That blinking club sign that switches between “PANDEMONIUM” and “DEMON” was mildly clever the first time, but not the twenty-first time I saw it in less than two hours.
  • Some of the worst fight choreography I’ve ever seen.

In addition to being visually offensive to the senses, the show is also a complete storytelling disaster. Granted, it’s been a while since I’ve read the books the show is based on, but the first two episodes seem to have raced through probably half of the first book. At the same time, however, if feels as if very little has happened, and most of the characters have had remarkably little to actual do with their time on screen. Instead, most of these first couple of episodes is devoted to worldbuilding, but not through showing the audience what’s going on. Rather, there’s just a metric shitload of clunky exposition delivered primarily through embarrassingly bad dialogue.

Perhaps worst of all, almost no one seems to be able to actually act worth a damn in this show. The dialogue is bad enough as written, but it’s not helped by soulless, wooden delivery. This could be the result of terrible characterization, though. The show so far relies heavily on hackneyed archetypes, and each character seems to have a single personality trait, none of them likeable. Clary speaks in a creepy little girl voice; Isabelle is portrayed as a sexpot; Magnus Bane is simply sullen; Alec is grumpy and xenophobic; Jace is vaguely and unconvincingly Byronic; Simon is a pathetic Nice Guy™; Luke is strong and silent-ish. Every single one is a worn out stereotype, and there’s nothing clever or interesting or subversive about any of them.

Listen, as I said in the beginning, I didn’t expect this show to be great, or even particularly good. I did expect it to be fun. Instead, it’s an epic catastrophe of everything that can go wrong with this sort of genre program: nonsensical mythology, bad visuals, awkward exposition, moving through material at such a blazing fast pace that there’s no emotional depth, dour performances, no discernable sense of humor. It’s so irredeemably, relentlessly horrible that I don’t even want to keep watching for laughs.

8 thoughts on “Shadowhunters is an infinite pit of visual and storytelling atrocities”

  1. I caught the pilot too. I couldn’t stand Jace. I was curious about this show because one of my cousins is really into the Mortal Instruments. But it’s just not my thing.

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    1. I wasn’t SUPER excited about this show, but I thought it could be something interesting to watch and poke some gentle fun at. It’s just so, so horribly bad, though. If you want something in a similar vein to watch, I highly recommend Lost Girl. Or just go back and rewatch Buffy. That show has aged surprisingly decently.

      Honestly, I’m just really confused about why Cassandra Clare’s work keeps getting so much attention. It’s middling at best, and there’s so many better options out there if you are interested in urban fantasy.

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      1. Oh, it was horrible alright. I couldn’t stop staring at Clary’s hair. Say, you think you could recommend some books on this kind of -as you describe it- urban fantasy? I’d love to read something new to get rid of the awful impression this gave me. Ty! 🙂

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      2. I actually don’t read much urban fantasy at all. I read the books this series was based on a couple of years ago, and they were actually fun. Not good, mind you, but fun. Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books are supposed to be fun, and they’re what the show True Blood was based on. My sister used to love Laurel K. Hamilton’s stuff. I’ve also heard good stuff about Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series.

        Unfortunately, it’s just not my normal reading genre. I love urban fantasy television (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost Girl, True Blood, etc.) but the books are often long series, and I almost never read anything more than three or four books long.

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      3. I found out that Magnus and Alec are a thing. I am totally down with gay male ships, so I think I’ll be sticking around for this. But Agent Carter airs in the same time slot. Hopefully I can catch it on Hulu.

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  2. I agree with everything you said apart from Isabelle’s makeup. I don’t think it’s clownish at all – I really, really like it! I think it suits the actress and looks sexy with the red lipstick without being overly heavy.

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  3. Agreed for everything but Jace (especially Izzy’s White outfit and Katherine McNamara’s disgusting dye job). Could you elaborate what you find too on the nose? And no, they really can’t act except for Alberto Rosende. (But hey if you abs, why would you need to act? 😉

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