There's something discombobulating about watching a story you love be turned into a TV show. It's a mix of fangirl joy and utter trepidation the adaptation will get it wrong. This was the position I found myself in last year when Fox announced their new series “Lucifer” would be based on the Vertigo comic book character. As a huge fan of the graphic novels, I tried to temper my expectations. After all, how could Fox or anyone have a budget to match the imaginations of Neil Gaiman and Mike Carey.
I”d also seen the posters and read the plot synopsis. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. I knew “Lucifer” wasn't going to resemble the source material in early episodes, especially after getting a chance to watch the pilot. But I held out hope that after introducing all the major players the show would take a turn, surprising us with its supernatural elements.
But alas, the series is a police procedural. I understand the allure of the procedural genre, giving structure to a weekly show. But – as my friend Dan Fienberg pointed out – when everything”s a police procedural, it all starts to look the same.
I don”t fault the general viewing audience for not being familiar with the Vertigo comic. It was a cult favorite but not exactly in the mainstream public consciousness. Using stats from ComicChron, the stand-alone issues rarely broke the Top 100 in their day. But I CAN be confused by the choices made by the show's creators. It”s not like Satan isn”t a public domain character. Why pay for the rights to a comic if you're not going to utilize the source material?
There is very little of Mike Carey's Lucifer in the TV version of this character. Instead of an aloof, arrogant former angel who couldn”t give two figs about humanity, Fox has replaced the Morningstar with a stereotypical anti-hero who wants to learn about humans and become a “better person.” The show even has Lucifer in therapy – yes, really – to sort through his Daddy issues. But the most jarring change is Lucifer”s conversion into a player who will sleep with any human woman with a pulse. He has this strange effect on women where they”re all attracted to him. Apparently regardless of sexual orientation or commitment level to another person. In fact, a main plot point of the pilot is Lucifer's confusion that Chloe is impervious to his powers. Lucifer is immediately attracted to Chloe because his “mojo” doesn”t work on her and that”s weird. It never occurs to him that maybe she just doesn”t like men. Oh sure Lucifer”s “mojo” affects men too, but it only makes them confess their darkest secrets, not want to bone the Devil.
Until “Lucifer” I had no idea a television show was capable of gaslighting. Yet the changes were so drastic, the very first thing I did upon finishing the pilot episode was to drag out the first few issues and re-read them. Just to make sure I wasn”t losing my mind. No, Lucifer doesn”t help the police. No, he doesn”t care about punishing the wicked. And no, he certainly doesn”t spend more than a few passing moments on Earth once Carey's run began.
It is possible to adapt a beloved comic book or novel without causing fans of the source material to cringe. You can walk the fine line between being accessible to the general public while keeping the core of what made the original medium popular intact. Just look at “The Walking Dead” or “Game of Thrones.” Each has taken a wildly popular piece of written media and converted it into a cultural phenomenon.
If you”d told me before HBO did it that “Game of Thrones” could be converted into ten, one hour episodes I”d have called you a liar. But the creators managed to pull out the essence of the story. Sure I”ll miss Jeyne Poole and Jeyne Westerling (what does HBO have against Jeynes?) but fans understand the need to condense and the basic beats remain the same. Meanwhile “The Walking Dead” has deviated wildly from the comics, but the tone and exploration of what it means to survive in this zombie apocalypse is the same.
Then you get adaptations like “WWZ” or “Lucifer.” These are the kind that perplex fans. You could show these adapatations in a blind test and most would never guess they were based on another property. Anything that resembles the best parts of the source material have been stripped out. In the case of “Lucifer” it”s the otherworldliness of both the character and the setting. To see a character that was originally introduced as using a teenage girl to trick an Old God then abandoning said teen in the middle of the desert now CARE so much about humans is disingenuous. If you want to have a “Satan Cop” show fine. But don”t call it “based on Vertigo”s ‘Lucifer” when the only similarities are some of the character names.
But why does it even matter? Bad adaptations have existed forever. In writing this article, my editor pointed out Charles Dickens” work has been tread and re-tread for decades and many iterations have invariably been bad. But cult classics like “Lucifer” don”t get hundreds of attempts. They”re lucky if they get one. And if that one is bad? That”s the legacy it gets. There are very few mulligans in the world of broadcast television. Some shows get a second life on Netflix of Hulu, but those are beloved shows with poor ratings. What chance is there for a terrible adaptation getting a second shot from the ground up? Miniscule.
And THAT”S why fans get riled up when their favorites go off the rails. We have one shot to share our niche love with the world. And instead we get things like “Satan Cop.”
I am literally incapable of judging the show on its own merits. Perhaps it's a perfectly decent crime procedural. Alan Sepinwall thinks otherwise. But I'll never know. Let me be frank: if you're a fan of the comic book, stay away from Fox”s “Lucifer.” It will only fill you with rage and despair.
“Lucifer” airs Mondays at 9/8c on FOX.