March 03, 2016
I have a fondness for movies about the end of days like, well, End of Days. The world doesn't necessarily have to end. But the devil does have to shown up to get his due. Call the genre "Miltonesque" because, as they say, Milton gave the devil all the good lines in Paradise Lost.
These are often the smartest movies about religion, even when dancing right up to (and over) the edge of camp. It's one thing to posit "evil" as a mindless Manichean force like gravity or radiation. But if the devil is going to argue his case on screen and in person, he's going to have to make sense.
Pointing to performances by Ray Wise in Reaper, Peter Stormare in Constantine, and Al Pacino in The Devil's Advocate, I argue that what makes them such compelling devils is that "they're bad with reasons, motivations, and no apologies."
Much in the same way that the structure of the police procedural disciplines the storytelling, tackling the big philosophical questions in an accessible, story-driven manner disciplines the dialectic. And now to the above list we can add Welsh actor Tom Ellis as Lucifer Morningstar. Yes, that Lucifer.
The devil, you see, is on a sabbatical from hell, and has camped out at a posh nightclub in Los Angeles. There he meets Detective Chloe Decker (Lauren German), who is investigating the murder of one of his patrons. It doesn't take long for Lucifer to conclude that solving crimes is a simply brilliant way to pass the time here on Earth.
So now we have the eschatological police procedural.
Meanwhile, Mazikeen (Lesley-Ann Brandt), Lucifer's demonic chief-of-staff, and Amenadiel (D.B. Woodside), a bounty-hunting angel, form an uneasy partnership in order to get Lucifer back in Hell where he belongs. Lucifer is in no mood to comply, despite discovering that he's slowly becoming mortal, an alarming fact he treats with fascinated delight.
Lucifer hearkens back to Angel (before Whedon cluttered up the cast and the storylines) and the Spike-centric episodes of Buffy. It's also the theme of Hellsing. Alucard (that's Dracula spelled backwards) joins forces with Van Helsing largely because modern evil is so boring.
It should come as no surprise that Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, and Mike Dringenberg have creation and writing credits, from the characters they developed for the DC Comics series The Sandman. Gaiman knows his British apologists (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, to start with), or maybe he just breathed it all in growing up.
The penultimate scene in the first episode has Lucifer getting his partner shot because he doesn't want her to kill the bad guy. This echoes the conclusion of Screwtape Letters, in which death is seen by the tormenting demons as a defeat for the devil.
As far as Gaiman's Lucifer is concerned, death is a cop-out. He wants the wicked to suffer. He wants the punishment to fit the crime in the most exacting terms imaginable. After all, he explains, he doesn't perch on your shoulder exhorting you to sin. That's all the work of human free will, not him.
And yet he gets all the blame. Well, then, the sinners deserve all the punishment.
The devil as the supreme legalist also hews nicely with Mormon theology, according to which God and the Devil differ not so much in ends as means. The real question is not salvation, but the cost to the soul. And the question on Lucifer's mind is the cost to his own.
Being that this is L.A. and no preacher will get anywhere near him, hopefully the answer will come from his shrink (Rachael Harris). With some backroom coaching from Amenadiel, the result in episode 6 is a counseling session worthy of the King Follet Discourse.
When he's not debating whether the unexamined life is worth living as an actual human being, Tom Ellis plays Lucifer as Ferris Bueller on his day off from Hades. The lovable rouge, the bad boy constantly surprising himself by doing the right thing.
He and Lauren German cook up the kind of chemistry we see between Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu on Elementary, where the sparks can fly without the risk of veering into rom-com territory. When she calmly parries his seductive entreaties the first time they meet, he leans in and peevishly asks, "Did my father send you?"
There's a whole lot of theology packed into that question.
Woodside and Brandt's uneasy relationship mirrors that of the leads. They dominate the screen whenever they take over a scene. In particular, Woodside's commanding presence versus Ellis's devil-may-care attitude is a great illustration of opposites that are different sides of the same coin.
Lucifer is currently scheduled for a 13 episode run on Fox. At this point, the "morality" arc seems to be working its way towards an inexorable conclusion. While I expect Lucifer to get his wings back and not end up a literal fallen angel, I couldn't spell out how this is going to happen or what might come after that.
Even if nothing comes after that, Lucifer will still make a great one-and done, sporting a metaphysical heft too rarely seen in a prime time genre series.
Christianity is cool
Devil of a role
Lucifer (Fox) (Hulu)