Warning! This post will contain spoilers for Shadowhunters Season 3A and spoilers for The Mortal Instruments books. It will also contain some criticism of the show, so if you don’t want to see that, please don’t read on! It will not hurt my feelings and I completely respect your love for the show!
Picture this: It’s a Wednesday in 2016, and I am eagerly awaiting the end of my first period Math class so that my friends and I can spend our free period huddled around a laptop watching the newest episode of Shadowhunters (which, as I live outside the US, was branded as a Netflix Original and was available on Netflix every week the day after it aired in the US). We loved the show, both those of us who, like myself, had been longtime fans of Cassandra Clare‘s novels that are the show’s source material, and those of us who had never read one word of City of Bones. We loved the show because it had fun characters, extreme drama, and, honestly, because we could laugh at it. We loved how cheesy the dialogue was at times, how absurd the plot could be (remember that weird, alternate universe episode in season one? It made basically no sense, but it was a joy to watch), and so many other things. We knew it wasn’t an Emmy winning show by any means, but we loved it because we had fun watching it, and because it really did have heart.
Flash forward to today: we don’t really watch Shadowhunters anymore. Part of it is because our schedules got busier, but part of it is how the show has changed, and how those elements that once made the show so endearing have evolved into something sour. I still watch the show, or I have watched up until the end of season 3a, but I’m not sure I’ll watch the rest. Because I’ve fallen out of love with the show. It has lost the luster it once had, and there are a few reasons why.
1. The Plot
So, above I mentioned how I used to love how ridiculous the plot could be. But as the show progressed, the plot only became more far fetched, to the point where it felt haphazardly thrown together, instead of just silly at moments. Season 1 had a pretty clear plot: Clary (Katherine McNamara) was introduced to this world, and we fought off Valentine (Alan Van Sprang) as he gained prominence. This makes sense, and though elements here and there were confusing, it was a narrative that was followable. Season 2 started off straightforward, but then veered towards the wacky: Jace (Dominic Sherwood) had gone with Valentine and was then captured by The Clave, but then Jocelyn (Maxim Roy) died and Clary tried to resurrect her and was almost impregnated with a demon baby, and then Izzy (Emeraude Toubia) got addicted to yin fen, and we’re not even halfway through! The Seelie Queen (Lola Flanery) makes an appearance, and a bunch of Downworlders die for no reason because a sword was ‘activated,’ which was never really explained, and then Jonathan (Will Tudor) shows up, and there’s a lot of polyjuice potion-ing, and it really is all too difficult to follow. There’s so many elements at play here that it makes it work to watch the show. The plot leapfrogs from one thing to another, not bothering to always draw clear connections. The main problem, I think, is that the show doesn’t know what it’s doing with its source material.
It’s like the show has torn up Cassandra Clare’s books and tried to piece them together without actually reading the words on each scrap of paper. Elements from the books are thrown in – possibly so that the show can still try to draw in book fans – without any thought to how they actually play out in the book’s narrative, or how they will play out in the that of the show. Though I am a fan of the books, I try to look at any adaptations as separate entities. So I’m not saying that the show should’ve followed the books, but rather they should’ve either completely branched off or followed them as closely as possible, because the in-between state they’ve found themselves in is just confusing. I understand they wanted to tell some new stories, which is valid, and which they achieved in their first season, following the books, but with some deviations to make it more exciting on this different medium. Past the first season, however, they started to deviate further, but clearly didn’t want to completely break from the books, and so they created this hybrid that lacks a strong identity. The show is trying to follow a skeleton of the book plots, but is losing their nuance with the changes they’re making to try to stand out. I personally love when the show adds something completely new, such as the season 2 episode “Parabatai Lost,” which is, in my opinion, the best episode of the series (despite teenage Jace looking older than actual Jace), or the addition of new characters such as Lydia Branwell. But they lose this momentum when they go back to the grey area between the book elements and their new plots, not fulling committing to either.
They also throw in book references in different places, which only pads, not adds to, the narrative. Take Izzy’s addiction to yin-fen for example: in the books, this is a demonic warlock drug taken by Jem in The Infernal Devices series as it was forced upon him as a child and so his body is dependent on it while it is also killing him. In the show, not only have they given it to a different character in a different context, but they’ve changed the drug to be made of vampire venom and have healing powers, so it is only the name and basic concept that remains. For book fans, this is just irritating, and for show fans, it feels out of place, a reference that has no real purpose in the narrative. It’s frustrating to watch, because the inclusion of so many competing elements causes confusion, while the plot at base remains overly simple, these extra elements adding little meaning. It is both too difficult and too easy to watch.
Season 3a isn’t much better, rushing through the basic plots of the fourth and fifth books, ignoring what made the books special, but not adding anything remarkable either. In fact, because of how reliant they are on the book outlines, I’m not sure what they would’ve done in a fourth season, when they had run out their source material. Maybe that would’ve proved helpful, finally forcing them to completely branch out, but it also might’ve left them flailing, without the backbone of the books to rest on.
Now, an unstable plot can sometimes be forgiven when the characters sustain the show. (Look at Teen Wolf: most of the later seasons made little sense, but the beloved characters kept the show afloat). But the characters in Shadowhunters don’t all have this weight.
2. The Characters
Okay, I love the Shadowhunters cast. They all seem like amazing people and many of them are extremely talented. Matthew Daddario (Alec) steals every scene he is in. He is the best part of this show. But some of their characters are simply unreal. They feel flat despite three seasons of screen-time. Part of this is due to acting, with some actors putting in what appears to be very minimal effort, saying all of their lines in the same bored tone. This leads to a lack of depth and, by extension, a lack of chemistry with other characters. If one character is flat, then it is hard to create any relationships with them.
This does, of course, highlight some of the other actors (Matthew Daddario is giving 200% effort at every moment and it shows. He deserves all the awards), but it also makes it hard for viewers to root for characters and relationships as they don’t have meaning. In the first season, the characters were developing, and, despite not all the acting being stellar, it felt like they were going somewhere. But past that, many remained stagnant, and when watching the second and third seasons I’ve found it not only frustrating but angering to see so many characters consistently plain. I find myself pausing episodes and having to come back to them later or skipping through scenes because the characters could be so much better than what they are.
Of course, this cannot all be placed on the actors. I do think that they are all trying to an extent, but there is only so much they can do when many of the characters are written without much dynamism. Take Jace. He has, like, one emotion. Maybe two if you count his love for Clary. And here it is not about the acting; Dominic Sherwood is doing a great job with what he is given and his performance does add some nuance. But Jace is simply written as stoic and is rarely given more than that (though he is starting to change slowly thanks to Clary. It only took three seasons). Even moments when we add to his character (“Parabatai Lost,” man. Amazing.), it doesn’t seem to stick.
Now, I couldn’t write about character without mentioning Simon Lewis. Because wow. He is an absolute joy. While I maintain that Matthew Daddario is the best part of this show, Alberto Rosende is a close second. He is dynamic and hilarious and a bright spot in every episode. And his character has been given amazing development in his grappling with his identity as a vampire and his relationship with his family and his romantic partners. Simon almost makes up for the less-evolved characters. If I do continue to watch the show, it will be largely because of Simon.
3. The Tone
So I keep drawing this line between the first season and the other two. The show did change executive producers between the first and second season, going from Ed Decter to Todd Slavkin and Darren Swimmer, but I wouldn’t equate the change in producers to the quality of the show. This happens with many shows, the freshman season simply eclipsing the others. In fact, I would say things like the production value and special effects have improved over the seasons. The tone has also changed, turning darker and more intense, which many would say makes the show more serious. But, for me, I loved Shadowhunters because it didn’t take itself seriously. It was fun and a bit nonsensical. Like that alternate universe episode I mentioned earlier. That was great but never would happen in the current show. It no longer fits with the tone.
The problem here is not that a darker tone is bad, but rather that it doesn’t work with this show. If the plot and dialogue are going to remain clichéd and somewhat illogical, then an intense tone just feels off, drawing attention to the elements of the show that aren’t as serious as the show wants them to be. As a viewer, suddenly you notice how unstable the world-building is or how cheesy the dialogue sounds. The show wants you to think it’s serious, making the parts that aren’t now glaringly obvious. I liked when I could laugh at those things and feel that the show was laughing too. Because, though it’s always been a drama, at the beginning there was an undertone of fun that has been replaced with something I assume is supposed to be grit or rigour, but doesn’t work with the show as a whole. It is rare for a show to so blatantly point out its own failings, but this change in tone has Shadowhunters doing just that.
So there you have it. Why I have fallen out of love with Shadowhunters boils down to the frail plot, the somewhat stale characters, and the oxymoronic dark tone. I have also struggled to watch the show, I must admit, because the online hate that surrounds the show from a small sect of the fans. Unfortunately, I now associate the show with anger, and so this made it hard to watch even when I was really enjoying the content.
It is important to note, however, that these are just my opinions; I’m not saying that no one should watch the show, and I’m not trying to put myself on some moral high ground (I watched Teen Wolf even when it became completely unintelligible). If you love the show, then I am so glad that you have found something that you connect with. It is so easy to hate things, but loving something is difficult but incredibly important. And if you, like me, have lost your love for the show, then I hope you find something else that brings you joy. As my mom loves to say, “life is too short to watch bad TV.”