When I first heard that ABC Family, soon to be Freeform, was developing a television show based on Cassandra Clare’s bestselling book series The Mortal Instruments, I was nervous. After all, with a world as rich as the one created by Clare, there were about a thousand and one ways in which the network could get it wrong, and since I had already witnessed some of my other beloved books butchered by overambitious production companies, I was prepared to watch the premiere and rage against yet another adaptation injustice. Imagine my surprise, however, when instead of being disappointed, the Shadowhunters premiere “The Mortal Cup” left me grinning like a fool for days afterwards.
For a debut episode, “The Mortal Cup” manages to accomplish quite a bit, establishing its universe and mythology with finesse. As a whole, it’s chock full of supernatural delights: demons, warlocks, shapeshifters and more are present throughout the episode, intermingling with the ordinary world of what Shadowhunters call “mundanes”. However, it’s not the fantastical world of Shadowhunters that really makes this episode stand out–or, at least, it’s not only that fantastical world. What really makes it unique are the intriguing characters at the center of the story, brought to life by an amazingly talented cast who infuse their characters with just the right amount of quirks to make them believable without turning them into caricatures of their book counterparts.
At the episode’s heart is Clary Fray, a teenage girl who discovers on her eighteenth birthday that she is descended from a long-line of Shadowhunters, beings whose duty it is to protect the mundane world from supernatural threats. Thrown into the world of Shadowhunting after her mother is kidnapped, Clary must rely on the help of the mysterious and cocky Jace Wayland and his fellow Shadowhunters Isabelle and Alec Lightwood in order to find her, all while trying to avoid the members of a sinister cult called The Circle who are intent on retrieving the Mortal Cup. In the hands of a less talented actress, Clary Fray could easily have become just another teenage parody, but Katherine McNamara imbues the character with the perfect amount of strength and vulnerability, making her not only relatable but also someone for which the audience wants to root. In many ways, she is Buffy-esque, and I can only hope that she will go on to inspire people to the same extent as Joss Whedon’s iconic heroine.
However, Clary isn’t the only character to shine bright in this premiere: Jace (Dominic Sherwood), Isabelle (Emeraude Toubia) and Alec (Matthew Daddario) all promise to be fascinating in their own ways. We’re also introduced to her close family friend Luke Garroway (Isaiah Mustafa), who looks to be harboring supernatural secrets of his own, and her best friend Simon Lewis (Alberto Rosende), whose fate is foreshadowed in this episode–and no, I’m not going to tell you what that is. You’ll just have to keep watching to find out! In each of these cases, I feel like the casting director made stellar choices, but probably the best casting choice was Harry Shum Jr. as the charismatic warlock Magnus Bane. In the little time that he is on-screen, he manages to steal the scene away from those surrounding him. I can only hope that he becomes a major player in future episodes.
Altogether, “The Mortal Cup” did more than just assuage my misgivings about the series: it left me anxious to see more. As opposed to falling short of the books, it delivered riveting plot twists combined with enthralling characters and witty writing, all of which could help Shadowhunters become the breakout show that ABC Family/Freeform hopes it will be.
Be sure to catch the series premiere of ABC Family/Freeform’s Shadowhunters on January 12 at 9:00 pm EST!