Last week I finally got around to watching Netflix’s new Shadowhunters series. An adaptation of the great Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, I had high hopes. Given Netflix’s other fantastic original series like Orange is the New Black, Jessica Jones, and House of Cards (to name but a few), there was good reason to believe the series would be great.
The source material certainly is.
Alas everything was ruined when Simon was (spoilers!) kidnapped by vampires…
The reason for this was, unfortunately, the nature of the vampires in question.
Ken Dolls With Fangs
While the female vamp in the duo wasn’t an issue, the same could not be said of the character of Raphael Santiago, portrayed in the new series by David Castro. While the actor himself isn’t an issue, I found it utterly impossible to take him seriously in the first instance, or find him even remotely menacing due to his appearance.
In a show with generally excellent—albeit spartanly used—special effects, you would think the classic vampire would not be a challenge. Apparently it was.
Raphael—at least during his first appearance—is a Ken doll with fangs.
Like…seriously, what is up with the makeup job? His face looks plastic. The attempt to give him the pallid complexion of the undead has left him with a decidedly plastic sheen and do not get me started on those lips. They appear painted on, like those of a bad clown. In later scenes attempts are made to emphasise his cheekbones with contouring (presumably to give him the chiselled profile we’ve come to expect from handsome vamps), yet for reasons unknown they used blush, rather than shading. The effect is oddly clown like and in no way menacing.
And it’s not like clowns can’t be scary, if you really want to go for the scary clown look…
So what the hell is going on with Shadowhunters? Certainly in character, the vampires in this series should not be underestimated. They’re not the usually fluffy affairs I so abhor in young adult fiction. They’re violent, bloodthirsty, and while not as ruthless as I personally like my vampires they certainly have bite.
I’m struggling to understand how Raphael bites anything with those shocking plastic clip in fangs. I’ve had better sets of gnashers as free Halloween favours. And it’s not as if the makeup team on Shadowhunters simply can’t deal with guy makeup. I mean, seriously, Magnus Bane is a thing of beauty (as he should be), so what the heck went wrong?
Everything Wrong With Shadowhunters
Having watched the remainder of season one, and thankfully found future episodes featuring Raphael in which he looked nothing like a circus, I’ve identified the problem. The Ken doll issue in Shadowhunters is a symptom of a much larger problem, and one that is not uncommon to lower budget affairs and series that rely on a core relationship to sustain them. The problem I have, is that the source material for the show – the book series – provided ample material for all the races, beasts, characters, and relationships that occur.
Although Clary and Jace are the focus of the series, the world built around them is substantive, or at least it should be.
The series appears (at least on first inspection) to have poured so much of its resources into ensuring the core characters of Clary and Jace were perfect that they’ve let themselves down elsewhere. Likewise, certain effect elements that are prominent in the series, such as the magic and swords, are well developed because they appear frequently and from the very beginning. Other elements however, such as one off effects (the portal to the alternate universe for example), and beasties that are only on screen for a very short space of time, are very poorly rendered.
The vampires in Shadowhunters are not the central characters. Unlike a lot of other series, such as The Vampire Diaries, Tru Blood, Buffy, Angel, and the like, the main focus of the show is not the antics of the undead. In fact were it not for (spoiler!!!!!!!!) Simon getting kidnapped and later turned, they wouldn’t be in it at all. They’re not central, and for the first few episodes are not even in it.
As a result, when they do first appear—in an episode which does not even focus on them for the main part—they have been rushed. This is huge shame and a great detriment to the series, especially where the teeth are concerned. Given how few vampires are in the show regularly it would not be difficult to fashion them with decent fangs, but the first episode established what they looked like, and man was it bad. They were then stuck with that look—at least for the duration of season one—and while the makeup could be improved, the fangs couldn’t easily be changed. It was already established that this was what they looked like.
These Our Actors
A similar problem seems to occur in areas beyond special effects. The majority of the actors on the show are, quite simply bad. Katherine McNamara and Dominic Sherwood, who play Clary and Jace, respectively, more than hold their own and certainly have great chemistry. But again it seems that so much was put into finding the right people for these two core characters—the focus of the show—that little effort was expended on a lot of the supporting actors. Emeraude Toubia (Isabelle) and Isaiah Mustafa (Luke) are both strong, and Harry Shum Jr. plays Magnus to utter perfection, but beyond these few, performances are very poor, at least at the outset. Both Alberto Rosende (Simon) and Matthew Daddario (Alec) struggle, although the latter is greatly improved by the end of the season.
The main problem is that the majority of the supporting cast are very young, yet portraying very old characters. They simply don’t have the experience and gravitas to bring to the roles. It takes quite a bit to pull off ancient bad ass in a teenage body. The teenage shadowhunters are not trying to portray characters any older than they themselves are, but many of the other, minor roles, are warlocks, vampires, werewolves etc. who are a lot older than they appear as characters, and played by very young, very inexperienced actors.
Why? Because they were cheap.
Underfunded & Underdeveloped
The show simply doesn’t have the budget to support bringing in teenage actors with enough experience to convincingly pull off the roles they have. The roles are too minor, and the number of actors needed too great.
It is not until well over half way through the season the adult actors start to come in and take some of the heat, with the arrival of Alec and Izzy’s parents, and the return of Luke. Even Clary’s parents are—for the most part—portrayed by teenage actors hired for very small roles in flashbacks.
The result is a show that could have been spectacular if only it had been better developed. In the initial episodes Jace and Clary are the only characters with well-developed roles, and dialogue. The other core characters grow stronger as the season progresses, but it may well be too little, too late. The effects and make up likewise suffer from a lack of development in almost all areas.
We can hope that future seasons bring us more refined looking (and acting) vampires, but it seems unlikely. For now, my overwhelming reaction to the entire series can be summed up in four words:
Ken dolls with fangs.