Fox’s ‘Lucifer’ Turns Neil Gaiman’s Prince of Darkness Into Just Another Wisecracking Cop

Does the story of an androgynous, seductive, near-omnipotent being’s experiences with profound spiritual ennui and the struggle for personal agency in a dizzyingly complex mythological universe sound slightly too ambitious for network television? That’s because it is, and that’s where the problems with Fox’s Lucifer begin. 

Technically, Lucifer is a comic book adaptation, though its protagonist is so universally known and its ethos so divorced from its source material’s that it might as well not be. But my frustrations with Lucifer start with the way the series squanders the potential it inherited from its inspiration (though they certainly don’t end there), so let’s sum up that source: as depicted in Neil Gaiman’s legendary Sandman series, which ran from 1989 to 1996 under DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint, Lucifer Morningstar is bored — bored of his duties watching over hell and the sinners and demons who reside there, and bored of his status as Judeo-Christian morality’s scapegoat. So he quits.

From there, Lucifer went on to anchor his own series, written by Mike Carey from 2000 to 2006. It’s this version of the character, who owns a Los Angeles piano bar called Lux, that show creator Tom Kapinos (Californication) twists into something far less metaphysical and far more routine. Here, Lux is a standard-issue nightclub, Lucifer (Tom Ellis) is a standard-issue playboy, and by pilot’s end, Lucifer is, of all things, a standard-issue police procedural.

The concept of fusing the excitement of the supernatural with the comfortably mundane mystery-of-the-week format is not a new one. Over at The CW, Supernatural is still chugging along, and as early as 1999, Buffy the Vampire Slayer spinoff Angel reimagined an angsty vampire as the angsty star of his very own LA noir. If well or even competently executed, it’s a perfectly valid formula for keeping the mystique of the paranormal sustainable over the length of a network season. In Lucifer‘s case, however, the “normal” quotient is cranked up far too high, resulting in an absurd contrast between one of the most potent symbols in modern fiction and the trivial, mortal matters in which, for some reason, he chooses to involve himself.

At the series’ start, Lucifer’s been in Los Angeles long enough to have built up a full network of human contacts, all of whom seem to owe him favors. (Don’t worry, both “selling my soul to the devil” and “deal with the devil” are worked into the dialogue in the very first episode, lest we couldn’t get there on our own.) When one of them, a pop star named Delilah, falls victim to a hit-and-run outside his club, Lucifer takes it upon himself to investigate some human-on-human violence, partnering up with LAPD detective Chloe Decker (Lauren German) along the way.

Lucifer lapses into buddy-cop routine so quickly it’s almost comical. Within minutes, Lucifer is dangling an ex of Delilah’s over a balcony like any other cop who lives on the edge; within a handful of episodes, he’s locked in as an LAPD consultant, helping out on unrelated but equally small-time cases like a shooting at a fashion show. Unlike Angel, it soon becomes obvious, Lucifer’s opponents aren’t other supernatural beings — they’re ordinary criminals, making for a ludicrous mismatch of protagonist, in theory the most powerful force of evil or at least amorality in the known universe, and stakes.

There’s a peripheral story line involving an angel (D.B. Woodside) and Lucifer’s sidekick (Lesley-Ann Brandt) conspiring to send Lucifer back to hell in order to restore balance to the universe, or something. But that’s about as far as Lucifer is willing to delve into the epic theological forces that theoretically drive it. Even Lucifer’s ability is scaled down to fit the premise; here, a being whose powers are supposedly only second to those of God himself is limited to the neat party trick of getting anyone to disclose their deepest desires.

Lucifer clearly thinks the winning rapport of the Lucifer-Chloe dynamic can make up for its obviously lopsided nature. Unfortunately, Chloe is a stock Tough Lady Cop with just a few requisite twists: an immunity to Lucifer’s “superpower,” a past as a B-movie actress she’s trying to live down, and a seven-year-old daughter with an ex-husband who’s also a colleague. And while Lucifer is certainly interesting on paper (just ask Gaiman, or his own inspiration, John Milton), a character meant to be irresistibly charismatic needs the writing and acting to back it up. Ellis is handsome enough, but the ability to pull off lines like, “We can take a trip to pound town if we must” requires more than a charming British accent.

Even if one wasn’t familiar with the, er, subtler — and, it ought to be mentioned, David Bowie-inspired — version of Lucifer who appears on the page, however, the show’s weaknesses would still be apparent. This is a series that willingly scales back on the elements that’ll likely spark viewer curiosity in favor of those that make it nearly identical to any number of other series on network TV. That’s not just a failure to live up to its inspiration; it’s precisely the opposite of what a new show should do to stand out from competition that’s more numerous than ever.

Lucifer premieres tonight on Fox at 9pm.