March 2016

Lucifer charming

It seems I can only be prompted to blog during bouts of strong emotion these days, writing in midst of white hot anger, extreme smug or, in this case, intense over-excitement. Maybe it’s because, after 14 years, the dynamic of blogging has radically changed, moving from the urgent confessional towards a more self-conscious performance. (Or maybe I’m spending too much time on Twitter, which is performative in the same way that theatre must be, with immediate gratification/mortification; blogging is more like a movie or TV show, requiring rather more of our limited stock of patience than perhaps we wish to give.)



I knew from the moment I saw the first trail for Lucifer that it would be My Sort Of Thing. I didn’t realise for the first couple of episodes that it is loosely based on Neil Gaiman’s Lucifer from The Sandman, but for various reasons which will become eminently clear at some point in the next few weeks, or months, I’ve been a little distracted lately and had not been paying attention. Tsk tsk. Always said I was bad at being a fan.

If you’re a better fan than me, and are familiar with Lucifer from the work of either Gaiman or the wonderful Mike Carey who wrote the spin-off comic, I’d advise that you put that out of your mind right now. Lucifer the TV show takes Lucifer the character, and his backstory, and does something very different, but just as good, with him.

Lucifer (Tom Ellis) has grown bored of Hell, has shut up shop and moved to LA where he’s spent the last five years running a nightclub and charming the pants off anyone who stops moving long enough. When Delilah, a singer whose career Lucifer ‘helped along’ is shot dead, he cannot help but get involved in the hunt for the real killer. Enter Chloe Decker (Lauren German), detective with the LAPD, who is peculiarly immune to Lucifer’s ’superpower’, his ability to extract from people an admission of their deepest, darkest secrets. And so we end up with the unlikely team of Lucifer Morningstar and Detective Chloe Decker, fighting crime on LA’s lawless streets… Except not.

In the same way that it is unhelpful to think of Lucifer as a comic book adaptation, it’s also unhelpful to slot it into the supernatural police procedural genre. It’s not CSI or NCIS or The Bill or New Tricks (yes, yes, I’ve been trawling Hulu for old British TV shows, what of it?) with added Satan. Whilst there is a crime of the week, they’re really just a backdrop, the scenery against which we see a far more interesting narrative play out.

If anything, Lucifer has more in common with Sleepy Hollow than any of the million or so police procedurals that have graced our screens. Like Sleepy Hollow, Lucifer features a character dislocated from his normal reality and is paired with a modern cop who is dealing with their own problems and who also serves to ground not just both characters but also the show.

Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) is a man out of time who has to not only adapt to an era radically different from his own, he also has to protect himself, Lieutenant Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) and their extended family/team from supernatural evil. Lucifer is, well, the Devil, a fallen angel who’s trying to adapt to this messy, weird, very human world that he now inhabits. He’s not supposed to be adapting, he’s not supposed to change at all. He’s supposed to be emotionless and unsentimental but instead he finds himself having these… these feelings… which he can neither explain nor understand but which he yet finds fascinating. Lucifer is a lot less interested in protecting others, even if he does find himself intervening when perhaps he ought not, so the dynamic isn’t entirely parallel to Sleepy Hollow, but the overall structure is similar.

Co-incidentally, both Lucifer and Sleepy Hollow feature a white British male actor called Tom playing the ‘out of time/place’ character. (They also share an executive producer, Len Wiseman.) As a Brit living in the wilds of Wisconsin, perhaps this idea of the dislocated Brit dealing with all the strangeness of a different culture resonates particularly strongly with me. I particularly look forward to the episodes where Lucifer and Crane try to order a glass of water in a restaurant only to find themselves deemed entirely unintelligible. Now there’s a crossover to boggle the mind.

!! (Minor?) SPOILERS !!

As I said, Lucifer is only vaguely a procedural, not least because Mr Morningstar himself isn’t hugely interested in these crimes, unless he’s getting something out of it himself. In the first episode, Pilot, he’s interested in Delilah’s death because he was responsible for her having a music career in the first place. After that, the crimes are, for him, either a mechanism that allows him to get closer to Decker, who intrigues him, or an opportunity to play with his own (im)morality. But by S01E06, Favourite Son, the novelty has worn off and Lucifer walks away from the crime scene because the murder of a security guard and theft of a shipping container is “boring”. It’s only when he finds out that it’s his shipping container that’s been nicked that he engages.

Lucifer’s real interest lies not in solving crimes, but in understanding humans and their emotions, finding out why Decker is immune to his charms and, as the series progresses, understanding what it is to become (more) mortal. Having never had to deal with humans in their natural habitat before, he finds that perhaps they are a bit more complicated than he had been lead to believe, and he the ambiguity is irresistible.

This is, imho, one of the major strengths of the show. Most TV series or movies that tackle human nature head-on suffer from hideous interminability. There is nothing, to borrow Lucifer’s word, more “boring” than a worthy exploration of the human condition. The best way to tackle such introspection in popular culture is obliquely, through the medium of humour. We can take a sneak peak at our humanity through the lens of the Devil, and if we’re smart we can learn something about ourselves as we laugh.

This question of identity is a crucial one to every human who’s awake and paying attention. It’s certainly an important one for me. Having had what one might call a ‘non-standard career’, I can feel some of Lucifer’s pain. Who are we, really? Are we here for a reason, or do we just blunder through life and hope for the best? Does our work shape the person we become? Or does our nature draw us to certain types of work?

Lucifer’s own sense of identity is in crisis. He feels a deep-seated contradiction between his role as the Father of Lies and the fact that he is himself truthful and honourable, for certain definitions of truthful and honourable. His ability to draw the truth out of other people is mirrored by the fact that he never actually lies, though his truths often sound so ludicrous they are ignored. And, as he says, his word is his bond; Lucifer always upholds his end of a bargain. How can he, or we, square this with Satan’s reputation for deceit, manipulation and trickery?

And there are more wrinkles: How can he, or we, ignore the fact that his honour is not a little besmirched by the fact that he tells people that if they want something, they should take it. He might argue that ultimately the people he manipulates make their own decisions, but we can’t ignore the fact that he still encourages transgression.

“So the Devil made you do it, did he?” Lucifer asks Delilah. “The alcohol and the drugs and the topless selfies. The choices are on you, my dear.” But time and again, we see him nudging people towards choices they might not otherwise have taken.

These conflicts, between Lucifer’s conception of himself as truthful and honourable and both his actions and reputation, are at the heart of the sub-plot that explores Lucifer’s damaged relationship with his dad. After all, Lucifer Morningstar was once called Samael and was the favourite son of God, the most beautiful of all the angels. But, being a tad feisty, he rebelled some 3 seconds after the moment of Creation and was cast out of Heaven to become the Lord of Hell. But, as he says, was he made Lord of Hell because he was inherently evil, or is he a good person doing the job his father commanded him to do?

From this springs Lucifer’s second rebellion, his closing up of Hell and relocation to LA. He turns his back on his father, dismissing God’s demand, delivered by the angel Amenadiel (DB Woodside), and the pleas of the demon Mazikeen (Lesley-Ann Brandt ) that he return to Hell. And thus we have another story strand, that of Amenadiel’s and Maze’s attempt to persuade Lucifer to resume his duties. In, Pilot, Amenadiel asks what has become of the tortured souls and demons that Lucifer should be looking after? That question, so far, has not been answered. I was half-expecting to see more in the way of supernatural crime as the damned and the demons run riot. I’m actually glad that’s not the case, because Lucifer’s personal journey is far, far more interesting.

Of course, Lucifer isn’t the only person with issues. Decker has a broken marriage and is ostracised at work for daring to think that perhaps a fellow cop, now deceased, wasn’t squeaky clean. “Palmetto Street” keeps coming up as a major turning point for her, and an unresolved issue she can’t keep from revisiting.

One of the things I really love about Lucifer is that Decker’s relationship with her ex-husband, Dan, isn’t black and white. Whilst Lucifer himself refers to him as “Detective Douche”, and it’s easy to agree with that summation in early episodes during which Dan is at risk of being a cartoon of a character, by Favourite Son, he’s beginning to be a real, fleshed-out person. He doesn’t just have feelings, he has complexity, he has virtues and vulnerabilities, and he’s likeable. Maybe Chloe and Dan’s relationship is actually meant to be, maybe it’s worth saving.

This kind of character arc is not an uncommon one, but in Lucifer it’s essential. How tedious would it be if Detective Douche was actually a douche, if Lucifer really was the best man in Decker’s life? Not only would that be trite, it would be a disaster for Decker. Lucifer describes himself as “like walking heroin: very habit forming. It never ends well.” And you know that if Decker got involved with Lucifer it would indeed end badly, and she’s far too good of a person for that.

So often, buddy set-ups are predicated on romantic love between the leads, or some kinda of platonic bro-love if it’s two men. (When the leads are two women, it’s usually hatred morphing into basic platonic friendship, cf The Heat, because heaven forfend two women have any kind of love for each other.) And whilst Lucifer is desperate to provoke an amorous response from Decker, she is entirely disinterested in him, which makes their relationship both more credible and more satisfying. Instead, the romantic focus is on the estranged husband and wife, and it’s done with nuance and complexity, things of which I am a huge fan.

Lauren German is fantastic as Decker, with that perfect mix of suspicion and level-headedness that makes the whole show work. Without German, Lucifer would feel like nothing more than a vehicle for Ellis’s very obvious charms, but she brings an everywoman vibe to her performance that allows us to relate to her. Decker got where she is by being tough and determined, and not taking any shit from anyone, lease of all some weird bloke who says he’s the Devil. She is exactly the person that Lucifer needs, and German does her brilliantly. I love her to bits.

Tom Ellis is equally well cast. He has the insouciance, the accent, the eyebrows for the job, and his interpretation of Lucifer as the bastard child of “Noel Coward and Mick Jagger” is perfect. Of course Lucifer’s going to be cocky — he can’t be killed because he’s immortal. Of course he’s going to have swagger — women are irresistibly drawn to him (as might also be some men, as we find out in one scene). But where Ellis really excels is in portraying uncertainty, those moments when Lucifer really isn’t sure what the fuck is going on, and doesn’t quite know what is happening to him. It would be easy to overdo Lucifer, but Ellis is at his best when he’s reining it in, those moments of barely controlled rage, or the intense perplexity when Decker doesn’t behave the way he’s expecting.

If you haven’t seen Lucifer, then I recommend binge-watching as soon as you feasibly can. Watching the episodes back to back is hugely satisfying, not least because each episode is fresh in your mind so you pick up on the smaller details that you might miss if you waited a week in-between. And, of course, if you haven’t seen Sleepy Hollow yet, you seriously need to binge on that, too. All of it. Right now.

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