YA adaptation feels corporate and formulaic
“Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments” is the umpteenth piece of young-adult entertainment to entice our misfit teenagers with the notion that they, too, might be special beings gifted with supernatural powers — although, apparently, it helps if you’re a hottie. Not fun enough to be trashy and not resonant enough to make you care, this adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s “Mortal Instruments” fantasy novels, about the wretched demons and warrior angels who lurk among us, features the requisite goth attitude and eye-candy cast. But, lordy, is it silly — and worse, it lacks the wit or sharp self-awareness to own up to its campiness or help make its melodramatic elements more palatable.
Airing on ABC Family, which is renaming itself Freeform because someone at Disney thought that sounded edgier, “Shadowhunters” stars Katherine McNamara as Clary, an aspiring New York artist who, on her 18th birthday, learns the truth about her life. Her loving mother Jocelyn (Maxim Roy) has hidden her away from an underworld of evil demons who are after them — specifically, because Jocelyn was once a Shadowhunter, part of a team of elite, invisible guardians who kill demons and protect humankind. But after Jocelyn is kidnapped, a new generation of young, sexy Shadowhunters (including Dominic Sherwood and Emeraude Toubia) come to Clary’s rescue, explaining that it’s time she embraced her destiny and take up the mantle of being a demon-slayer.
“Shadowhunters” boasts a smidgen of old-school elegance owing to the fact that these characters use swords to battle each other. But in just about every other regard, the series pilot is an eye-rolling collection of pseudo-hip gestures that seems calculated to cater to teens and tweens with all the forced cool of your dorky new stepdad wearing a backwards baseball cap. (“Shadowhunters” is the type of show in which every fist-bump and meme-referencing bit of dialogue feels market-researched and cynically dispensed.)
Adding to the series’ sense of desperate trend-chasing, pilot director McG (the man behind the “Charlie’s Angels” films) shoots everything with an indifferent slickness, whether it be action sequences, dance-club scenes or moments that are meant to be more intimate and tender. Even the effects work has a threadbare, recycled quality, the show sporting some incredibly sad-looking CG monsters.
Granted, there’s nothing wrong with a TV show playing to its base, but what’s especially galling about “Shadowhunters” is how little substance it gives its hormone-addled audience. (This is actually the second attempt at adapting Clare’s books: The 2013 film “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” failed to impress critics or viewers.) McNamara is vivacious but doesn’t bring any depth to Clary, which makes it nearly impossible to connect to the character’s bittersweet discovery that she’s meant for great things, albeit at the expense of any sort of normal life.
YA fantasy fiction often focuses on wish-fulfillment scenarios — outsiders discovering they’re actually extraordinary — because they speak to universal insecurities so many of us faced as young people, at the same time flattering our adolescent, slightly conceited belief that we’re secretly exceptional and that nobody but us realizes it. But in the series’ opening episode, showrunner Ed Decter dully hits expected story beats without wringing much emotion from their underlying themes. And when Clary finally accepts her role as a Shadowhunter, it’s not portrayed as particularly momentous or inspiring: Instead, she’s outfitted in a slinky, revealing leather getup that’s supposed to make her look like a foxy badass. “Shadowhunters” does this again and again, ignoring the vulnerability and pathos inherent in the material to peddle a fantasy in which beautiful people pose and pout, approximating human feelings in such a vapid way that hopefully the show’s target audience laughs it off as nonsense. This reviewer certainly did.