(Spoiler Alert: to properly discuss this series, I will be covering some plot points.)
While I’ve usually reserved this blog for movie reviews, with the pandemic I’ve binged a couple TV series. Recently I watched “Lucifer” on Netflix, and it surprised me. The series began on Fox in 2015 and ran for three seasons. As fans of “Firefly,” “Dollhouse” and other shows can attest, Fox isn’t supportive of unusual shows and it was cancelled. (The production had already started filming the fourth season, leading to two stand-alone episodes that were tacked on to the end of the 3rd Season.) But Netflix stepped in and picked up the series, both replaying its Fox run and adding new episodes. Season 4 and 5 have been released, and they’ve been better than the Fox seasons. Season 6, expected to be released soon, will be the series finale, but as I’ll explain later that’s a good thing.
The series was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer’s company, not known for subtly or nuance, and it fits into the high concept niche that Hollywood loves. You can imagine the pitch meeting with Fox executives. “Picture this: the Devil takes a vacation from Hell and moves to Los Angeles.” You can almost hear the oohs and aahs of the execs. Essentially the plot is a retread of “Castle,” with Lucifer Morningstar (Tom Ellis) becoming caught up in an investigation led by LAPD Detective Chloe Decker (Lauren German) when a friend of Lucifer’s is killed. Wanting to make sure the ones responsible get punished, he teams up with Chloe to catch the killer, and discovers he enjoys the process.
The character of Lucifer is lifted from Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” series, though the original is too phantasmagorical to film in a weekly broadcast series. Creator Tom Kapinos came up with a decent ecosystem for the show, but the major credit for the show’s success and quality goes to show runners Ildy Modrovich and Joe Henderson, who have credit as executive producers and who, between them, wrote almost half of the episodes.
Chloe, whose parents were a cop and an actress, at first followed in her mother’s footsteps, appearing in a popular movie the included a nude scene to her lasting embarrassment. However, her father was killed in the line of duty shortly before the film’s release, leading her to switch careers and become a cop. She married another detective in the department, Dan Espinoza (Kevin Alejandro), with whom she had a precocious and wily daughter, Trixie (Scarlet Estevez), but the relationship failed and they’re separated by the first episode, though still working in the same precinct. Chloe is partnerless when Lucifer comes on the scene because her former partner is on life support after being shot under suspicious circumstances. Chloe was sure he was dirty and was trying to prove it when the shooting occurred. Now she’s ostracized by the other officers in the precinct.
Since coming to LA five years earlier, Lucifer has become the owner of Lux, a popular nightclub, and he lives in a swank penthouse above it. He’s known as a person who can help open doors and give opportunities, someone who knows all the important people in the city. He never hides his identity, openly telling people he’s the Devil, but in Los Angeles it’s viewed as a metaphor. (Interestingly, the root for the club’s name isn’t luxury but rather a unit of illuminance, playing off Lucifer being an angel of light.) Accompanying Lucifer to LA was his demon assistant and bodyguard, Mazikeen (Lesley-Ann Brandt), who at the series beginning tends bar at Lux. In the first episode we meet Amenadiel (D.B. Woodside), a brother angel of Lucifer’s who has come to earth to get him to return to Hell, and in the course of that first investigation Lucifer meets Dr. Linda Martin (Rachel Harris), a psychologist that he begins seeing to gain insight, especially into Chloe.
From the beginning the series set up powers for the angels. Both Lucifer and Amenadiel have superhuman strength and can’t be harmed by mortal weapons. Amenadiel can slow time while Lucifer can make a person share their deepest desire, which does come in handy for police work. Lucifer looks incredibly handsome and refined. Ellis, who was born in Cardiff, Wales, uses a British accent since you can get away with rude and over the top statements when you say them in a posh way. However, Lucifer can display what he calls his demon face, which can go from burning red eyes to a full bloody skull, to put the fear of God into those he feels are deserving.
Built into the story from the beginning is a bit of mystery. While Lucifer has his deepest desire mojo and can seduce women with ease, Chloe is impervious to his charms. A couple of episodes into the first season, Lucifer discovers that his invincibility doesn’t work when Chloe is close. Wisely, the writers teased out the reason why these things happen over the course of five seasons.
They also began exploring the full roster of characters and fleshing them out. While Dr. Linda fell under Lucifer’s spell and had sexual relations with him, after a couple of episodes she recovers her professional ethics. Over the course of the series she becomes friends and also counselor to almost all the main characters. In the first season Dan is shown to be not completely dirty but definitely soiled, and he ends the season demoted. Through the course of the following seasons, Dan seeks to atone for his sins, though he does have times when he backslides and must start again. While it doesn’t happen until later, Mazikeen grows beyond her demonic nature and, while she still can be a wild card, ends up becoming a protector to many of the characters, especially Trixie. At the beginning of the second season, the production added Forensic Scientist Ella Lopez (Aimee Garcia), which was like a shot of adrenalin. Ella is smart and competent, but we soon learn that she had a rough youth in Detroit before she turned her life around and moved to LA. Ella is also very open about her faith in God.
Part of the appeal of the show is its sharp wit along with Lucifer’s often outrageous narcissistic behavior that leaves Chloe exasperated. They also have a wonderfully meta sense of humor. Several times people tell the dark-haired Ellis that they thought the Devil would be a blond – which he is in the Sandman series. Another time, while trying to stay awake, Lucifer binges through all 14 season of “Bones” and ends up confusing plot points from that series with what’s happening to him and Chloe. But the most meta episode comes in the 5th season, when Chloe and Lucifer investigate the death of a TV writer who had spent a lot of time talking to Lucifer. They find he’d created a TV show based on Lucifer and Chloe. In one stand-alone episode, we see the characters in an alternate reality cause by one particular plot point not happening. The episode is narrated by God whose voice is provided by Neil Gaiman, the creator of Lucifer in the Sandman series.
But along with the humor there’s a deep humanity that can tug at your heart. In the first season, in the episode “A Priest Walks Into A Bar,” a priest seeks out Lucifer to help him save a young man who’s being drawn into a drug dealer’s crew. Lucifer refuses, assuming the absolute worse about the priest, and when the priest is tied to a murder Lucifer is sure he’s guilty. But when the priest is almost killed in a drive-by shooting, Lucifer realizes the priest is honestly trying to save the young man. There’s a lovely scene where priest and devil bond over playing jazz piano together. When the priest ends up sacrificing himself to save the boy, Lucifer is devastated.
Similar to the concept of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the writers will have a “Big Bad,” a villain that moves the story over the course of several episodes or even a full season. However, there’s nuance to the plots. No one’s simply evil; there’s motivation, and often good characters end up making bad choices that lead to repercussions. In the first season, Amenadiel heals Chloe’s partner to use him to force Lucifer to return to Hell. The partner was crooked, but after surviving the shooting – and spending what felt like an eternity in Hell before being brought back – he becomes as twisted as a corkscrew. He nearly kills Lucifer, Chloe and Trixie before some divine intervention helps Lucifer and Chloe stop him.
Throughout the show, the characters are faced with dealing with the fallout from what happens in the ongoing story. One powerful story arc begins in Season 2 with the “Big Bad” coming in the form of the Goddess, whom Lucifer and Amenadiel call “Mom.” She’d been confined to Hell for causing plagues on Earth, but she managed to escape and jumped into the body of a freshly murdered lawyer named Charlotte Richards (Tricia Helfer, who played Number Six on the SyFy version of “Battlestar Galatica”). While it’s foreign to Judeo-Christian theology, the concept of a Mrs. God does show up in other religions both old and new. Helfer, who in heels stands imposingly over six feet, was wonderfully devious and conniving in the role, while still retaining some sympathy. Mom tries to get Amenadiel and Lucifer to help her get back to Heaven to have a final ultimate domestic squabble with God, but in the end, Lucifer sends her to an alternate universe.
Most series would leave the story there, but “Lucifer” had a twist – when the Goddess leaves the body, Charlotte’s soul is dragged out of Hell and she returns to life. While it’s clear Charlotte as a lawyer had a similar killer instinct like Mom, after she returns she’s haunted by visions of her hell, and the months Mom used her body are blank on her memory. She makes major changes, trying to make herself worthy of heaven, but doubts she can tip the scale in her favor. In the end she sacrifices herself for another. It’s one of the most powerful spiritual moments I’ve seen on TV. But it causes ripples that continue to affect the characters through the next season. Dan, who had grown close to Charlotte, is devastated by her death, while Ella suffers a crisis of faith that makes her doubt her belief in God. It’s only at the end of the 4th season that Ella makes a realization that restores her faith in a much deeper way.
And that is the biggest surprise. While it can be irreverent, “Lucifer” has a well-developed theology along with a fascinating take on the concept of Lucifer. It should be noted that there isn’t much in the Bible on the Devil. He’s never identified as the snake in the Garden of Eden, nor does he show up in Job. Old Testament Judaism didn’t have a concept of an embodiment of evil. Instead, they had a tempter, but he was a servant of God. The New Testament has plenty of instances of Jesus healing demonic possession, and the Devil appears to tempt Christ and cause Judas’ betrayal. However, most of what people take as Gospel about the Devil comes from the writings of Dante and John Milton, illustrated by Hieronymus Bosch. In some Christian denominations, the Devil is lifted to the same level as God, a ying-yang of good and evil.
“Lucifer” rejects that theologically dubious idea, and instead focuses on him having been an angel who, through his rebellion, was condemned to preside over Hell. While Lucifer may complain about God’s actions, he’s always in a subservient role. While he’ll do deals with people, it is not of the Mephistopheles type. Knowing what people desire, he finds it fun to help them. Occasionally he’ll ask for something in return, but there’s no selling your soul. The series also rejects the idea of the devil leading people to sin, instead stressing individual responsibility for free-will actions and choices. The quickest way to feel Lucifer’s wrath is to say, “The devil made me do it.” Those who wind up in Hell are sent there by their own guilt, and the torture is to relive that guilt over and over throughout eternity.
A couple of times conservative Christian groups have tried to organize boycotts of “Lucifer” with the justification that it’s sacrilegious. While he has a strained relationship, and the writers enjoy giving a twist to “daddy issues,” one thing “Lucifer” never doubts is the existence of God. Many of the characters are frustrated by not understanding God’s purpose and action, but that is part of life for any true believer. God would rather have a wrestling match with us than to be blandly accepted and then ignored.
While it has the glitz and polish of a TV production and has a mystery play out over the course of 45-55 minutes, “Lucifer” is essentially a modern morality play. It’s funny, dramatic, witty, and heartbreaking, but it also requires the viewer to think on a spiritual/theological level rarely attempted in this medium. When the celestial is revealed to mortals, it shakes their world. The one mortal who is most clued into who Lucifer, Amenadiel, and Mazikeen are is Dr. Linda, but she essentially went catatonic when Lucifer showed her his demon face. She was able to handle it by focusing on her responsibility as a doctor, but there are times it still freaks her out.
Central to the story has been the relationship between Lucifer and Chloe that went from antagonistic to grudging respect to burgeoning love. At the end of season 3, Lucifer’s devil form was revealed to Chloe, causing her to run off to Europe for a month. While she’s almost led astray by a priest who tries to use her to destroy Lucifer, Chloe’s relationship with Lucifer ends up being stronger. There have been other series, notably “Castle,” where the will-they-won’t-they relationship between the leads has been left simmering too long and ends up ruining the show. The final 6th season of “Lucifer,” which will be two blocks of eight episodes each, will give the series a chance to come to a resolution and, hopefully, a satisfying end. It’s not easy to pull off – ask any fan of “Game of Thrones” – but “Lucifer” has managed to do its balancing act with panache up to this final season. I do hope they can stick the landing.