Fox TV’s ‘Lucifer’

Redeeming the ultimate bad boy

The eternal appeal of the bad boy has resulted in popular dictators, folk-hero criminals, and testosterone-poisoned professional athletes. Ideally, he’ll be someone whose story we can get behind. We want to support the bad boy, to see him win a righteous cause — while at the same time we take great pleasure in seeing him kicking ass and doing things that a good guy couldn’t even contemplate doing.

Devilishly charming: Tom Ellis.

The ultimate bad boy is, of course, Lucifer, King of Hell, First of the Fallen, and Adversary to the Lord. Best-selling fantasy author Neil Gaiman developed his own version of the character, Lucifer Morningstar, as a supporting character in his immensely successful Sandman comic. Lucifer proved to be so popular that he was spun off into a series of solo adventures, written by Mike Carey and published under DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint. (This series of graphic novels is well worth reading.)

Tom Kapinos built the new TV drama Lucifer around this character, which present him as bored with ruling Hell, so he decides to take a vacation on Earth, move to LA, open a ritzy nightclub and — team up with a cop (Lauren German) and fight crime? Whoa! Where did that last come from? Not the comic, for sure. The producers of Lucifer apparently decided to hedge their bets by combining three popular genres into one show. Properties from comic books are super-hot right now, and supernatural-themed shows are always popular, as are police procedurals. So — why not?

Well, for one thing, the disparate elements don’t mix at all well. The scenes that focus on Lucifer’s personal story, his interaction with mortals, and his troubled relationship with the heavenly host are absolutely brilliant. The writing is intelligent and witty, the acting is sharp, and the story is fascinating. When the murder mystery starts, though, the writing flattens out, the acting dulls down, and the story feels like nothing more than a bad retread of an episode of Castle. You certainly can’t blame the star — Tom Ellis is absolutely perfect as the Morningstar. Besides being incredibly good-looking, he has a devilish charm and great comic delivery of the script’s one-liners; but there’s only so much even the best actors can do when a script fails.

Changing motivations

After the pilot, though, the writers seem to have figured a deeper, more interesting take on a story with Satan as the hero. It seems that the more he interacts with his police detective companion, the more he seeks to punish criminals (sinners) — which was, after all, his original raison d’être — and the more his motivations change. He’s becoming less interested in punishment and more interested in — if you can imagine — justice for the innocent. Lucifer has actually begun to care about the mortals he’s meeting, to feel empathy for them. This is clearly leading Lucifer towards a crisis of conscience. Are we seeing the possibility of actual redemption for the former Prince of Evil?

And if so, wouldn’t you think that the emissaries from Heaven would be happy about the prospect of Satanic rehabilitation? No! It turns out that God’s plan requires an evil adversary, who will rule over Hell that functions as Heaven’s dark reflection. We are left with a Heaven that is unhappy with an evil being trying to do good, a heavenly plan that insists that a good man be evil.

Lucifer is showing promise of something more sophisticated than a simple good vs. evil story set in a flashy fantasy environment. We are seeing a story unfold that questions the very nature of good and evil, and the proper place of both in today’s world.

 

For Paula Berman’s take on TV antiheroes, click here.

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