Given the success of comic book properties on television (not to mention the even huger success in movie theaters), it’s not remotely surprising that large scale owners of comics IP are busy turning everything they can into TV shows. But it’s hard to think of a more difficult property to develop for broadcast than Lucifer.
Set to debut on Fox January 25 after The X-Files, Lucifer is based on the character largely created by Neil Gaiman in his seminal DC/Vertigo comic series The Sandman, and later more fully developed by writer Mike Carey in his long-running spinoff series named after the character. In all versions, the tale is still about that Lucifer – AKA the Devil AKA the main villain of more than half the world’s major religions.
The comics took a Milton-esque view of Old Scratch, starting from “better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” and building out from there. The result was a complex story that included Gnostic concepts, Jewish folklore, Norse and Japanese mythology, ultimately turning into a particularly jaundiced theodocic rejection of the entire Judeo-Christian conception of religion. With lots of sex, lots of death and the total overthrow of the cosmos, Satan, at the center of it all, arguably proved right in the end.
Great idea for premium cable but on a broadcast network like Fox, it’s a guaranteed bag of concentrated controversy. Which is probably why the show has mostly tossed the concept and created a police procedural around the character. How the series pulls that trick off remains to be seen – I admit as a fan of both The Sandman and Lucifer it gives me tremendous pause. The topic was naturally a big part of the conversation during its TCA panel this morning, attended by executive producers Joe Henderson, Jerry Bruckheimer, Jonathan Littman, Ildy Modrovich and Len Wiseman, along with cast members Rachel Harris, Kevin Alejandro, Lauren German, and star Tom Ellis.
“We take our cues from the comic book character, the one that Neil Gaiman created and Mike Cary developed, which is the devil is the son of god. He’s not evil, he’s just a rebellious son who decided that he wanted what his dad had and doesn’t understand why he didn’t get it,” said Henderson. “He’s mischievous, he’s playful, he’s honest, and he embraces his desires… Lucifer is all about exploring humanity and exploring desires. When he talks to people in Los Angeles there’s no pretense. He just wants to do whatever he sees in front of him.”
As in the comics, so the producers say, the character isn’t played as evil, but rather as a kind of distillation of human nature itself. “There’s nothing evil about him, in fact there’s nothing evil about a lot of our desires that we keep hidden because we’re embarrassed about them or we don’t want to act on them,” Henderson continued. “Sometimes the truth shall set you free. That’s one of the things I find interesting about the character,”
“Lucifer says it himself,” added Tom Ellis, who plays him: “Am I the Devil because I’m intrinsically evil, or am I the devil because dear old dad decided I was?”
So what about the huge cosmic-level ideas and settings that formed the spine of the comic series? It’s been long known the show is doing something else, but might the ideas show up in another form? Perhaps, but alas most likely only in allusive ways. “Our challenge,” said Henderson, “and what we tried to do is take those big ideas, that sort of raging against the cosmos, and ground them in the world of L.A. What’s the metaphor we can steal from them? What’s the idea?” So for those of you who’ve read the comics, Lucifer isn’t going to create a pocket universe in which he gets to find out what it’s like to be God, but themes from that storyline inspired the television series nonetheless.
Another aspect from the comics that isn’t readily apparent in the new series is that, as originally conceived by Gaiman and expanded on by Cary, Lucifer is very, very much based on the mannerisms and public persona of the late David Bowie. I asked Ellis and the show’s producers how that influenced the development of the character. The answer is that it’s there in the DNA, but they’re not trying to recreate it.
“Truth be told, it didn’t in terms of how I approached the character,” Ellis said, adding that the character’s Man of Wealth and Taste aspects are still there. “What we did do is take some of [Bowie’s] music and use it in the pilot. Lucifer is a massive David Bowie Fan obviously.”
Jonathan Littman also made the case that Bowie’s uniqueness can’t be imitated. “Unless you can get David Bowie, it’s probably better not to mimic David Bowie,” he said.
But, the show is attempting nonetheless to draw from the legendary musician. “I think that sort of effortless cool that was David Bowie,” said Len Wiseman, “I think we found a different way to encapsulate that.”
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