Oh, goody, two of my least favorite narrative ploys: too many stories, and a timeskip.
Police procedurals, for better or worse, have been the strategy for adapting comics to television, to varying degrees of success. One reason is because of course superheroes solve crimes and perform citizens’ arrests of alleged criminals. In some cases, those superheroes are either part of law enforcement–Barry Allen on The Flash is a crime scene investigator–or the adaptation is about the law enforcement agencies assigned to deal with superpowered individuals, as with Agents of SHIELD.
But to paraphrase the recent film adaptation of Deadpool, the Devil is not a superhero. So thank goodness that having a television series like Lucifer focus on the archetypal villain or antihero largely avoids the doldrums of the police procedural.
Having not read the original Lucifer comics published by Vertigo, I entered the Fox television adaptation with apathy regarding its archetypal police procedural structure. Based on the few episodes I have watched, what entertains me about the show is not the case of the week, or even the plot of the titular fallen angel, so much as it is that the characters are interesting, and I want to see their stories.
Therefore, when a series then introduces a timeskip, even one that is only three weeks, to speed up the plot towards the season finale, I get annoyed.
While LaToya Ferguson at The A. V. Club finds the police procedure structure frustrating, it bothers me far less than, say, iZombie (another television adaptation of a Vertigo Comic), which seems far too geared to a gimmick (zombie eats brain, zombie gains personality of that brain for whacky contrast to her previous personality). In contrast, from the few episodes of Lucifer I have watched, the titular character (Tom Ellis) is reliant on gimmicks to solve a case, so much as he, as the Devil himself, manipulates the emotions of the criminals to reveal their hubris, hence motivation or even to admit to the crime. Lucifer, in this case, as both character and series, seems far more akin to Perry Mason, and that is a trope I am okay with: I am fine with seeing a character who is so perceptive that he allows the criminal to out themselves, as the victory owes more to the hero (or, with Lucifer, antihero) playing the long-game and waiting for the criminal to slip up. Therefore, I have to disagree with Ferguson’s argument that the show does not seem self-aware: you have the Devil himself manipulating people’s emotions to get them to confess to their crimes–that seems rather self-aware at how silly this concept is at its core, along with a trope long found in crime dramas, far less in cop shows and, as I am arguing, more prevalent in legal dramas.
That is not to ignore that Lucifer’s abilities can make him overpowered and which, in many real-world settings (and yes, I am expecting realism in a series about the Devil) may not be effective investigation techniques. Lucifer can show visions of Hell to scare people into confessions, which is the equivalent of using torture to extract information, a method discounted by our reality, left with us thanks to 24 but usually subverted, whether it is Michael Weston telling us it does not work in Burn Notice or Matt Murdock or Clark Kent at least coupling their attempts at interrogation or torture with the ability to sense breathing and heart rates to function as superhuman lie detector machines. Lucifer also can manipulate persons’ emotions is troubling, especially in how he uses such charms to seduce others, and how this series avoids referring to or even actually does code it as a form of rape.
What saves Lucifer from falling into the dullness of some crime procedurals is that the show is focused around the main character. Lucifer works best when it allows its titular character to be outed in public as the Devil himself–and yet has few of the main cast believe him. The show thankfully does not toy with the idea that he may just be imagining he is the Devil: no, he has supernatural abilities, works with and against other angels and demons, and he repeatedly rails against his father, God Himself–yes, this is Satan. Instead, as he is in Los Angeles, he is seen as just another over-the-top personality who draws upon the cult of celebritydom to be as offensive as possible in name and in his hedonism. Furthermore, by setting the series in Los Angeles, Lucifer draws upon some of the best qualities of Angel, where what is seen as far too supernatural to take as real is treated simply as Hollywood decadence and special effects.
The police procedural also has been largely tolerable because the cases tend to draw upon some detail of Lucifer’s personality, tying back to him whenever possible in terms of his daddy issues, his conflicted emotions regarding faith that humans have in his father, or his understanding of his own humanity. This week’s case in the episode “#TeamLucifer” should have been far more entertaining and far more about developing Lucifer: it is about him confronting a satanic cult. The episode mines pretty good comedy out of Lucifer’s growing annoyance that people worship him, whether his confusion why goats are associated with him (maybe has to do with the horns?) or his embarrassment as the cult member standing as his avatar can’t fit his large decorative headgear through the door.
However, “TeamLucifer,” as Season 1’s penultimate episode, struggles with one narrative trope–the timeskip–that reveals flaws inherent to the police procedural structure in general, and fails to use its best parts for the character of Lucifer and in progression towards the season finale.
Timeskips annoy me. They are a way in which a writer works around drastic changes in characterization by passing over significant changes in the story. In some cases, timeskips set up a mystery to the viewers but not to the characters involved: this puts the viewers at a distance from the characters, making it difficult to feel connected to them and makes their story feel foreign. This was a problem I had trying to watch Young Justice, and it is a problem that makes me hesitant to get into certain series, such as Fairy Tail.
Such mystery imposed by timeskips also compromise the dialogue: characters speak vaguely, use coded language, or silence discussion on topics out of supposed cases of anger or trauma to draw out the mystery until the writers are ready to give viewers copious amounts of exposition or flashbacks to back-fill the story. This was apparent with Agents of SHIELD wanting to avoid the revelation about which side Jemma was on, SHIELD or HYDRA, early in the series, or The Flash delaying the revelation of what happened to Ronnie at the beginning of Season 2–although that, fortunately, is answered in the very first episode and not delayed by months.
The flaw of timeskips reminds me of Andrew Stanton’s explanation why he and the staff at Pixar avoided this mystery in Finding Nemo and just revealed that Marlin’s trauma involved the death of his wife and children: unless the mystery is going to be a surprise, and if the audience is going to figure it out before it is revealed to them, then there is no point in hiding the obvious.
With only two episodes left in the season, “TeamLucifer” struggles to thread together, by my count, at least five different narratives:
- Lucifer struggles to avoid Chloe (Lauren German) because her presence removes his angelic invulnerability (revealed in last week’s episode)
- Malcolm (Kevin Rankin) is ingratiating himself to Lucifer after the Devil spared him (also revealed last week)
- Maze (Lesley-Ann Brandt) is conflicted about manipulating both Lucifer and Amenadiel (D. B. Woodside) (again, revealed last week)
- The case of the week: someone is killing satanists (new to this week)
- Reverend Williams (Evan Arnold) is organizing protests specifically against Lucifer for perceived participation in these satanic killings (new to this week)
What is the point, then, of skipping ahead three weeks? Let me look at each narrative thread:
Narrative #1: Lucifer has already struggled with his regard for Chloe for the entire season, so I fail to see how an extra three weeks of off-camera events helps clarify that the two have had a rocky regard since the beginning. This timeskip also deprives a chance to see what had developed over the last two weeks, that being Lucifer turning down an opportunity to have sex with Chloe, and Lucifer’s conflict over how vulnerable he is around her. This episode tries to summarize this chill between them all at once–but it gets overcast by the other narratives and awkwardly put on hold so Chloe can arrest Lucifer at the end of the episode when Reverend Williams is found dead (Narrative #4), throwing suspicion onto Lucifer that he indeed has been killing the satanists (Narrative #5).
Narrative #2: And it is revealed that it is actually Malcolm who killed the satanists (Narrative #4). Too quick–this detail is tossed in all at once to wrap up this episode’s mystery, and to lead into the Season Finale where, if the commercials are not lying (and, in all likelihood, it’s marketing–there has to be some lie inherent), he will be the Big Bad of the season.
The problem is that there is not room to breathe to see Malcolm’s creepy investment in Lucifer.
Last week, Lucifer convinced Malcolm not to kill him by offering to save his soul from being sent to Hell for all the murders he has committed. This deal at least has an interesting ramification: now free of the prospect of damnation, Malcolm really gets to sin. Previous episodes showed Malcolm, brought back to life from a coma, engaging in such hedonistic behavior after he was rescued from Hell, indulging in sins of gluttony, rage, and pride. But this episode reduces what could be interesting about Malcolm, making him Lucifer’s foil by mirroring his hedonism only without the charm and style, and instead has him become Lucifer’s fanboy, willing to kill anyone who isn’t really a satanist.
If I could discuss Narrative #2 for a bit more, but tie it into two other narratives:
Narrative #2, #3, and #4: If it were me, and I had an extra few episodes, I would put Malcolm in the background rather than skipping ahead three weeks. Tease out that mystery, especially if, as a police procedural, you want a mystery around the killings of these satanists. Throw off suspicion from him, give Reverend a bit more character to throw off suspicion, and let Narratives #2, #3, and #4 be in the background for a bit.
Narrative #3: We are supposed to feel some closeness between Maze and Amenadiel, to move their relationship from carnal to emotional. The timeskip, as I argued, is a cheap way to move through that characterization, and in this case it allows the story to return to status quo. Maze’s character has been a wildcard for a few episodes, her allegiance shifting between Lucifer and Amenadiel–and this episode’s payoff is her entering the room while these angelic brothers have a throw-down to say that she is done with both of them and to leave (even as next week’s preview shows she will return, and that Lucifer and Amenadiel collaborate to fight Malcolm). Therefore, the point seems to be to show fractures in this makeshift group of outcasts: Lucifer does not fit into Heaven and wants to be out of Hell, Maze is aimless, and Amenadiel is removed from Heaven until he can send Lucifer back to Hell. And then those fractures will be closed just in time for the Season Finale. It’s too quick. In one episode, Maze shifts from being a double-agent to being a free agent–and we are likely not going to get a moment to see her character on her own.
Overall, I am railing against the limitations of television production: a 13-episode season is going to fit in as much story as possible to move the plot to whatever ending the writers have in mind, and if that means skipping weeks at a time, so be it. It’s not like Daredevil Season 2 does not have significant leaps in time to move from summer (Episode 1) to Christmas (season finale). However, Daredevil also benefits from a format largely different from what we get with broadcast television. Almost no episode of a Netflix drama is 40-something minutes (the time of original programming for one hour of commercially supported broadcast or cable television), and the lengths of episodes vary. Therefore, Daredevil benefited from extending the time if necessary to tell more of its story. While such an option is not available for Lucifer on Fox, there are cheats: shows like Community, Parks and Recreation, and The Flash have deleted scenes or broadcast online extended director’s cuts to incorporate more content and fill in material for plot and character that could not fit in the broadcast window. I can only hope some option like that is available for Lucifer.
- Part of me looks forward to a time in the future when #Hashtage titles are passe, but, oh, I am not looking forward to the mockery by 2020s to 2050s television mocking this particular obsession.
- Lucifer tossing a toy at a child to wake her up is rather hilarious.
- And Lucifer evidently is not a fan of chicken at his sacrifices–which, having watched The Devil Is A Part-Timer, where Satan works at McDonald’s and is in competition with KFC, yeah, I can see why the Devil would hate fried chicken.