If searching for proof that there is no premise that network television can’t turn into a police procedural, look no further than Lucifer, in which Satan abdicates his throne, walks away from his divinely mandated duties to explore life among mortals… and somehow ends up helping an attractive, driven young homicide detective solve crimes. In theory, Lucifer presents about as theologically rich a central concept as one is ever likely to find on network television, as Old Scratch muses about who should truly claim responsibility for the evils of the world. Lucifer insists that he is wrongly blamed for the sins people commit on their own accord, yet he also blames his father—what the show generally prefers to call God—for forcing him to rule over hell in the first place. But all that mostly takes a backseat to the show’s case-of-the-week storytelling structure, as Satan’s philosophizing plays like the kind of breezy wisecracking one can see as humorously mismatched partners solve the case on almost any other network cop show.
Much of Lucifer’s apparent intellectual complexity is an artifact of its source material. The show has its roots in Neil Gaiman’s great Sandman series for DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint, which portrayed a Lucifer bored with ruling Hell and eager to redefine himself. Mike Carey’s similarly acclaimed Lucifer spin-off series provides the basic structure for the show, as Lucifer leaves hell to run Lux, a piano bar in Los Angeles, aided by his confidante Mazikeen and opposed by the angel Amenadiel. But where Lucifer the comic series offered a deep meditation on the nature of free will, Lucifer the TV show inserts its title character into what is basically the premise of Castle.
In its plot mechanics, especially in the early going, the show plays like a satanic version of God Cop, the intentionally preposterous, nonsensical police procedural from 30 Rock in which Jack Donaghy’s God teams with an NYPD detective. Lucifer is immortal, possessed of terrifying power to inflict pain and suffering, and capable of persuading anyone—with the notable exception of his partner, Detective Chloe Dancer (Lauren German)—to tell him their deepest secrets just by asking. All of which makes the devil overqualified to solve homicides, and the first episode reveals his crime-fighting technique mostly involves asking a series of people to give up the identity of the next person in the chain of suspects. It’s a repetitive sequence, but there really isn’t any other plausible way for a being so ridiculously powerful to investigate a crime without immediately solving it. Subsequent episodes cut against this a little by suggesting Lucifer’s growing humanity might in fact be turning him mortal, but this is treated more as a vague concern than something that would actively cramp Lucifer’s style.
And it’s that style that makes Lucifer watchable, if not necessarily worth watching. Tom Ellis, a veteran British TV actor in his first lead role, plays the title character as a walking smarm bomb, delivering his every line with a smoothly hedonistic charm. Lucifer appears aware of how absurd its premise is, but it doesn’t wink at the audience. Instead, Ellis portrays Lucifer as someone who treats most of existence as a big joke, yet he’s intrigued by humanity’s mysteries and genuinely cares about a few of the people he meets. That dynamic—amused disbelief, followed by fascination and actual emotional investment—is pretty much what Lucifer is banking on from its audience, as the sheer audacity of its premise enables the show to dig into big philosophical ideas rarely kicked around on network TV. Or it could use the whole thing as window dressing for what is fundamentally a rote police procedural.
It could go either way, though later episodes suggest the show gets marginally smarter on the margins: A bit about how Lucifer’s LAPD partner is a former actress most notable for a nude scene appears to be quietly dropped after the premiere. Mostly, Lucifer suggests it knows well enough to get out of its own way, wasting as little time as possible on the most obviously boring aspects of the cop show part of its premise. The show pays lip service to the fact that a police detective probably wouldn’t just straight-up accept that her unofficial partner is the devil himself, yet the show only spends any real time on this when it’s relevant to a character beat, as otherwise everyone pretty much just accepts the guy’s name is Lucifer Morningstar. Similarly, the show doesn’t make much of the fact that Lucifer’s crime-solving approach does, as expected, violate every conceivable rule of proper police procedure. At times, the cop show aspects of Lucifer are so undercooked they play as parody, which is probably the only way a show like this could work in the first place.
What’s left then is a show that refuses to be defeated by the inherent insanity of its premise, a show that desperately tries to make something out of mashing together network television’s most clichéd tropes with one of comics’ most innovative, philosophical series. The result is something that, for all its familiarity, feels different from the standard fare, and there’s a chance this show could grow into something so deliriously bonkers that it becomes legitimately good. It wouldn’t be the first time a high-concept Fox show has pulled that trick—looking at you, parts of Sleepy Hollow—but Lucifer isn’t quite there yet. But what it already is really has to be seen to be believed, if only as a one-off curiosity.
Created by: Tom Kapinos, based on the comics by Neil Gaiman and Mike Carey
Starring: Tom Ellis, Lauren German, Lesley-Ann Brandt, Kevin Alejandro, Rachael Harris, D.B. Woodside
Debuts: Monday, January 25 at 9 p.m. Eastern on Fox
Format: Hour-long satanic police procedural
Three episodes watched for review