Please note: May contain spoilers for those not familiar with the series.
The Mortal Cup, the pilot for Freeform’s new Shadowhunters series, lived up to my expectations: mediocre with a nice slice of Simon. It’s a TV pilot. Honestly, pilots tend to be the weakest episode of a series. There are exceptions like Mr. Robot and The Walking Dead, but in general the pilot is there simply to set up characters and exposition and make a murky mess of what’s to be fleshed out over the season. So, if your expectations aren’t high you won’t be too disappointed.
Unfortunately, Shadowhunters is based off of the New York Times best-selling series The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare. Expectations among fans were high. I’m a fan myself of the Shadowhunter world. There were many changes from the book to the screen that I’m curious about. Is Luke a police officer because it’s the occupation of choice among TV characters at the moment? Since Clary is now with her mom at the start of the attack why doesn’t Jocelyn portal with Clary? Why introduce Magus Bane and Valentine so early? Why in the name of the angel is Valentine hiding out in Chernobyl?!?! The original 20 miles radius of the disaster area is deemed unfit for human life for the next 20,000 years. Yes, he’s half angel, but he’s also half human, which means radiation poisoning can still affect him. Right? Am I right? Chernobyl? Seriously?!
If I were reviewing the pilot I’d say they tried to cram too much back story into an hour that would have played better letting it unfold over the season. But I’m not here to review the episode. I want to take a look at Cassandra Clare’s text and examine the writing decisions of Hollie Overton and Y. Shireen Razack and directorial choices of McG in contrast. For this I have to focus on the Institute since it is home for much of the book.
The Institute was huge, a vast cavernous space that looked less like it had been designed according to a floor plan and more like it had been naturally hollowed out of rock by the passage of water and years … Pale arches of stone held up the high ceilings, many of the arches intricately carved with small figures. She noticed certain repeating motifs: angels and swords, suns and roses.
The Institute is a church. It’s supposed to feel antiquated, like it was captured in time, unable to progress. But in the TV show it looks more like something out of an episode of S.H.E.I.L.D. or the bridge of JJ Abrams’ Enterprise. A hodgepodge of exposed, high tech computers and modern, florescent lights. I understand choices are made to make shows feel relevant, but there isn’t much in the TV version of the Institute that links to the Shadowhunter world Cassandra Clare designed. No cherub paintings. No witchlight. No Church. There are some stained glass windows and stone arch ways, but they are lost among office chairs better suited for the conference room in Office Space and random metal and glass structures that seem to contain nothing but space.
The corridor outside the infirmary was empty. Clary glanced down it, perplexed. It looked like the sort of hallway she sometimes found herself racing down in nightmares, shadowy and infinite. Glass lamps blown into the shapes of roses hung at intervals on the walls, and the air smelled like dust and candle wax … The Victorian-looking wallpaper was faded with age, burgundy and pale gray.
There’s some exposed brick in the hallway, but that corridor is so well lit Izzy’s white pleather two piece shines. The modernity overpowers any attempts at making it feel like it once was a church. This Institute doesn’t look like it smells of dust or candle wax. But perhaps human perspiration.
I’m willing to overlook the lack of Victorian gothic in set design if the James Bonding of the Institute didn’t come with one major flaw. Why are there so many people there?! The Institute is flooded with Shadowhunters, milling around in the background, tapping on computer screens and tablets. There’s even a Shadowhunter doing martial arts in the same room that becomes the infirmary later.
The only people supposed to be at the Institute are the kids – Jace, Isabelle, and Alec – and Hodge, the sole adult. Part of the reason Clary and Jace make the choices they do in the novel City of Bones is because they are teenagers left to fend for themselves. Jocelyn’s been kidnapped. Clary thinks Luke hates her. Isabelle and Alec’s parents are off in Idris, and Hodge is hardly a good role model. The four teens – five if you add in Simon – are on their own and make reckless decisions from their hearts instead of their heads.
But in Shadowhunters they are surround by adults. By filling the Institute with extras, the creators of the show have taken away the isolation of the teens and a level of their desperation. In fact, when Alec complains that they should send word before acting and Jace replies there isn’t time, I thought, “Maybe just turn to one of the twenty plus people next to you and say something, or pass a note around the gigantic computer screen?”
At least from the outside the Institute looks like a church. And that leads me to Simon, the best part of the pilot. Simon is a character writers love to write. Witty, silly, sensitive, complex. The best part of the pilot was Simon outside the Institute on his cell talking to Clary, who informed him she needed to get dressed first.
“What are you doing undressed in an abandoned church? Clary is there – is there a meth problem we need to talk about?”
Oh Simon, hilarious and caring at the same time. It isn’t a meth problem Clary has; it’s a case of too many extras.
And Chernobyl. Seriously??