“Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” was Lucifer’s unforgettable, damning judgment in Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Heaven had been rent by warring winged factions, with Lucifer leading the rebels. The losers were exiled to hell. Rather than make peace with the Almighty, the fallen angels decide to tempt man, to pull him down to their domain. You’ve likely heard the rest of that story in Sunday school or elsewhere: snake, Eve, apple cores, exile.
Countless scribes have tried their quills at writing Old Scratch. Only a few added anything that resonated. It’s possible—in my judgment, it’s likely—the tag team of British comic book writers Neil Gaiman and Mike Carey pulled off that difficult trick. In his hit comic “The Sandman,” Gaiman gave us Lucifer Morningstar, lord of Hell who changed his mind after 10 billion years on that sulfurous throne.
This was more believable because Gaiman’s Lucifer didn’t repent and come crawling back to the Father. Rather, he emptied the place and handed the keys back, effectively making Hell Heaven’s problem. (Seriously, a couple of miserable unfallen angels ended up running the joint.) Meanwhile, the Devil decided to go on a walkabout on Earth, first, fittingly, in Australia, and then, more questionably, to Los Angeles. There he opened a piano bar to pass the time and consider what to do next.
Carey picked up the story from there for a comic spanning 75 issues over six years. He sent Lucifer away from his club on many quests that included doing a favor for his oldest enemy, confronting a deck of vengeful tarot cards come to life, the creation of a whole new godless universe, and (of course) Armageddon. Carey’s tale is epic not in the watered-down way the kids use it these days but a genuinely large and layered story. A certain presidential candidate would call it “yuuge!”
A Devil of a Show
The “Lucifer” that debuted on Fox last week was anything but epic. Like Carey, the story joins our title character at his own L.A. bar. Unlike Carey, it wants to keep him anchored there. The title character is named Lucifer Morningstar, and some of the back story is the same, but that’s about it.
Critics are lukewarm to it. Even those who want to defend the show defend it as something wholly other than the source material. Writing in io9, show booster Cheryl Eddy admitted that “the character is loosely based on a Neil Gaiman creation but is very much his own beast here.”
This rough beast, writes Eddy, is instead a “case-of-the-week cop drama” with a supernatural twist. She admits that the show has many flaws, including “fairly generic” cop show elements, “paper thin mysteries,” and chemistry between Lucifer (played by Tom Ellis) and retired B movie actress turned divorced mother cop Chloe (Lauren German) that “wears a bit thin.” Also, she warns that Lucifer’s ability to get people to confess damned near anything to him “could get old as the series continues.”
That’s a lot of “to be sure” from a critic who goes on enthuse, “But that’s OK, because Ellis kills it.” He’s “cheeky” “funny” “rakish” and “not just a sharp-dressed ladykiller.” He’s an all-around “delight, and if this show is a hit…he’ll be the reason why.” Now, before readers form the impression that I’m mocking Eddy through selective quotation, I’d like to issue an attagirl on her minor point.
Ellis Almost Pulls ‘Lucifer’ Back from the Abyss
The advertisements for the show made it look awful. With the help of good gag writing, Ellis turns in an oddball, unexpected performance that makes the show something very different than it would have been. He almost redeems it in the process. Think of the effect Johnny Depp had on “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Through his bizarro character acting, he made a movie based on bad animatronic pirates into a huge moneymaking franchise—though not actually good movies.
Similarly, Ellis does turn in a winning performance as a surprising character in “Lucifer.” And if the series gets any extension beyond Fox’s initial 12-episode order, it will be because of that character. But that character is not, in any meaningful sense, the Devil.
Take episode one (and yes, SPOILER ALERT). The show opens with a cop pulling Lucifer over. Lucifer gets out of the ticket by getting the cop to admit that he enjoys minor abuses of his power and by bribing him with a huge wad of cash. He sympathizes with the officer by telling him, “I like to punish people, too—or at least I used to.” Next, Lucifer runs into a starlet friend of his—named Delilah, of course—and calls in one of his infamous binding favors by ordering her to—and I am not making this up—pull herself together.
“Oh, God, I’m a mess,” she says. “God has nothing to do with your mess,” he corrects her. They engage in a nice platonic hug, and then she’s the victim of a drive-by shooting. Cue the beginning of buddy cop show.
Too Bad the Writers Turned Their Backs on the Creator
Eddy knows this isn’t actually the Devil. She just doesn’t think that matters. This Morningstar is “deeply conflicted” about that whole good and evil thing and he’s “both delighted and terrified to discover that he’s becoming – gasp – mortal” as he embraces his newfound humanity. At one point, a former fellow underworlder tries to snap him out of it with this leaden line: “Stop caring. You’re the Devil.”
Different interpretations of the Devil work thematically, just not this one once the novelty wears off. It’s a pity the creators so thoroughly abandoned the source material, because Carey, building on Gaiman, gave us a memorable Lucifer.
The comic book Lucifer was a fascinating anti-Christ figure, and not in the sense that he was always tempting people to their ruin. In most cases, he couldn’t be bothered with people. Rather, his cardinal vice was sheer willfulness. Inverting Jesus’s famous prayer, he told the Creator “not your will but my will be done,” and damn the consequences. That was a tale worth telling at length. It didn’t deserve to be bastardized into this forgettable mid-season replacement.