Where “Lucifer” on Fox goes off the rails

“Lucifer,” the new midseason replacement show on Fox, doesn’t trust its audience.

Episode #8 aired last night, and at this point the show is a basic police procedural with a celestial crisis (something bad will happen without Lucifer working as Hell’s CEO and main jailor) lurking vaguely in the background.  Tom Ellis is charming as Lucifer in a performance that is virtually a cover of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki from the Marvel movies.  Lauren German is the supermodel cop who plays the straight woman.

The debilitating, series-limiting problem with, isn’t that the show is offensive to Christians (it is, but that’s no surprise), nor is it that the show has the same narrative engine as “Castle,” “The Mentalist” and “Elementary”— what NPR’s Linda Holmes calls “The Adventures Of Mr. Superabilities And Detective Ladyskeptic.”  (I wonder if Lauren German, Stana Katic, Lucy Liu and Robin Tunney get together over tea to practice humorless looks on beautiful faces.)

There’s no way that any TV show could capture the sprawling story from Mike Carey’s “Lucfier” comic book (inspired by a Lucifer cameo in Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” comic book).

Instead, “Lucifer” fails because it tips its hand the moment the story opens: we know that Lucifer Morningstar really is the devil, has left Hell because he got tired of playing a role in God’s plot and instead moved to Los Angeles (the city of angels) to open a piano bar, at which point he meets a gorgeous female detective and they start an investigative partnership.

The missed opportunity with “Lucifer” was that the show could have been a tightly-focused “is he the devil or is he nuts?” exercise, one that could have lasted five seasons.  (I predict that “Lucifer” will run of out of story steam in Season Two.)

The show would have been more interesting and sustainable if every time Lucifer demonstrated unusual abilities there could have been two equally valid interpretations, only one of which is that he isn’t human.  Lucifer’s conversations with brother angel Amenadiel could have been shot in different stock or with a filter that suggests they might have been hallucinations. 

This twist would have not have affected the police procedural plots, the crimes of the week that Lucifer and Detective Chloe Decker solve, but it would have made the sustaining relationships more interesting.

The entire show, in other words, could have been more like Lucifer’s relationship with psychiatrist Dr. Linda Martin, in which she does not believe that he is the devil but agrees to work within his metaphor in treatment.  If the audience had doubts about Lucifer’s devilish status, then Dr. Martin’s torrid sexual relationship with Lucifer would then have been more ethically dodgy — and more dramatically interesting — since she would have done something wrong rather than been mesmerized by a supernaturally sexy being.

If the audience didn’t know whether Lucifer was the devil in retirement or just a mad human, then that would have made all the personal stories that come out of the narrative engine compelling.  In other words, the series could have played the Hamlet card: is the prince merely putting on an antic disposition or has he truly gone nuts?

But it’s not fair to saddle Lucifer with Shakespeare-sized expectations.  Instead, the series should have taken a page from the movie “The Sixth Sense.”  (Spoiler alert, although for a movie from 1999 I should hardly have to warn you.) 

At the end of that movie, the revelation that Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is himself a ghost, one of the dead people that the little boy can see and hear, casts everything the audience has just watched into a new, complex and compelling light. 

What’s important, though, is that even without that final twist “The Sixth Sense” is still a great story.  We don’t need the twist to have loved the movie, but it makes us reengage with the story as it ends (see notes).

In my alternate reality version of “Lucifer” (the one where Spock has a beard), Chloe’s relationship with Lucifer would have been vexed by her having to triangulate growing affection against a fear that he’s either a whacko or the devil in retirement… neither of which are high recommendations for a boyfriend you can bring home to meet Mom.

A five season arc might have gone like this:

Season One: we meet the characters, Lucifer and Chloe forge a partnership with potential.

Season Two: Chloe thinks that Lucifer is human and nuts, but she falls for him anyway.  She spends part of the season trying to figure out his real human identity but cannot.  They consummate their relationship.  The season ends with Lucifer doing something impossible.

Season Three: Chloe now believes that Lucifer really is the devil, and she is trying to figure out if sleeping with him has eternal consequences.  The season ends with Lucifer demonstrating mortal frailty (e.g., he gets shot, cliffhanger with him in the hospital).

Season Four: Lucifer, recovering from his wounds, begins to doubt his own story.  He refuses to talk with Amenadiel because, like the audience, he thinks that Amenadiel is a hallucination. 

Season Five: everything comes to a head.  The really weird stuff (e.g., Donald Trump is a presidential candidate) gets even weirder, and from the “he’s really the devil” perspective the gates of hell stand agape and it’s really time for Lucifer to get back to his real job.  Meanwhile, from the “he’s just nuts” perspective Chloe and Lucifer are faced with their need to move ahead or move on.  The last moment of the last episode finally reveals the truth, with no ambiguity or “Dr. Sam Becker never leaped home” betrayal.

I’ll keep watching “Lucifer” for another few episodes to see where the plot is going, but I fear that the answer is “to hell in a hand basket.”

Notes:

Don’t miss Linda Holmes’ piece that includes “The Adventures Of Mr. Superabilities And Detective Ladyskeptic.” HT to Alan Sepinwall [] for linking to this, and his own review of “Lucifer” is brief but strong.

Digression #1: “The Sixth Sense” is the opposite of “The Fight Club” (1999, and another unnecessary spoiler alert), which lies to the audience throughout because the Brad Pitt character turns out to have been a movie-long hallucination by the Edward Norton character.

Digression #2: I’ve long been fond of literary explorations of the devil, from Milton to Gaiman and including Jeremy Levin’s “Satan: his psychotherapy and cure by the unfortunate Dr. Kassler, JSPS,” “Glen Duncan’s “I, Lucifer,” and a terrific version in Robert Heinlein’s novel “Job: a comedy of justice.”

Cross-posted on Medium.com.

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