The debut season of Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments is a mixed bag, highlighting both the strength of the characters and their relationships but exposing the lack of narrative progression and a finale which feels more like a mid-season break.
The narrative arc of the first season is taken almost directly from the plot of the opening book in the series by Cassandra Clare, with some changes made to speed up the development of the relationships between characters. One of which, between the by-the-book Shadowhunter Alec Lightwood and the centuries-old mage Magnus Bane, is one of the best aspects of this season. Whilst I have some minor quibbles about how quickly this develops in the space of just a couple of episodes with much of it off camera, it is refreshing to see an LGBT+ relationship being portrayed so naturally. There is still the expected dilemma of an LGBT+ character having to make the decision to come out to those who may oppose it for their own happiness, but the acting helps to overcome any missteps in the script. If anything, this relationship comes off a lot better than most of the other ones featured in Season 1, ranging from cliched to just plain annoying.
There is also a fair amount of potential in the main protagonists, particularly in the characterisation of the sultry yet complicated Isabella Lightwood, so I am interested to see what happens with her and the suggested future relationship with the main character’s best friend Simon. On the other hand, the duo who are supposedly the main protagonists seem overshadowed somewhat, despite crucial plot revelations being attributed to them. I can’t put my finger on the exact reason why Clary and Jace don’t interest me as much as the other characters, but it might be because they fall into roles that fans of Young Adult literature and TV will have seen countless times.
If I would have to use one term to describe the pacing in this opening season, it would definitely be “slow-burner”. The writing chooses to focus on the characterisation and personal narratives of the protagonists and other supernatural beings who inhabit the city; werewolves, vampires and witches are of course included. I don’t think there is much wrong with that, since it allows a lot of side narratives to take place, such as the eons-old conflict between vampires and werewolves, and Alec’s planned marriage to another Shadowhunter and the politics of the organization. Whilst the former does feel overplayed, especially in the post-Twilight and YA horror era, it is the directives and hierarchy in the latter that feels like it has a lot more legs. Playing out like a fantasy version of a political drama, it allows for more misguided actions and conflicts of interests with those inside the Shadowhunters, and I am sure that it could continue to do so in future seasons.
The antagonist of the season only really appears when the plot requires him too and thus he is not seen a great deal before the finale. This basically means that he has an explosive effect on the main character in the opening episodes, disappears for a bit, before returning in the final few episodes (including a flashback episode: of course!). This, combined with the fact that the season tries to follow the events of the first book, means that the final episode doesn’t contain as much conflict as it could have done. I am in two minds on this. On one hand it would have been a very rash switch in pacing if writers went all out in an explosive battle, plus it sets up the next season very nicely. But, on the other hand, I can’t help but feel like something more eventful could have been whipped up in order to reward those who watched the entire season.
Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments was a series I was looking forward to enjoying, being a fan of Young Adult literature and television. However, while there are real bright spots in the writing, notably in characterisation and the potential this allows for in the future, much of it comes off as uneventful and somewhat cliched. It is not a bad season by any means, but it fails to really stand out in the way I hoped for.
Star Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆