Let’s go ahead and get the “devilishly good” pun out of the way right here. If you’re not burned out on procedurals (or watching it already), you’d almost certainly enjoy Fox’s Lucifer: It’s smart, funny, savvy and actually a joy to watch, rare praise for a TV series that follows the threadbare formula of a cop solving murders.
What you might not know is that Lucifer is based on a comic book. (Yeah, that’s right—not even the tried-and-true police procedural can escape the grasp of the comic book industry these days.) Fox has always been good at mixing genres to create something fresh, from The X-Files (aliens and agents!) to Bones (quirky science and police!), and Lucifer is, in this vein, a case study in how to adapt a comic book mash-up.
In a lot of ways, comics are tailor-made for TV. They’re serialized (much like television), and broken into smaller, episode-sized issues. It’s also a proving ground for what types of stories people are interested in following. Even if we’re not talking about capes and cowls, shows like The Walking Dead and iZombie are proof positive the medium is ripe for exploration (or exploitation, depending on your take).
You literally can’t change the channel nowadays without running into a series based on a comic book, It’s a long list: In addition to the aforementioned pair, The Flash, Arrow, Gotham, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Supergirl, Luke Cage, and Wynonna Earp, are based on comics, and the list is by no means exhaustive. Most of these series (understandably) wear their comic-book roots on their sleeves, and for the most part, it works.
Lucifer is a different beast. The hit series is based on a character co-created by acclaimed comic writer and novelist Neil Gaiman, first introduced in Gaiman’s seminal graphic novel The Sandman. The king of Hell turned out to be a hit supporting player, and he eventually spun off into his own solo series, which follows Lucifer (Tom Ellis) as he heads for L.A. with his demon pal Mazikeen to run a piano bar called “Lux.” For TV viewers, that sounds pretty familiar, right? Well, that’s pretty much where the similarities end.
In adapting the comic for television, producer Tom Kapinos (Californication) sketched the bones of the series from the comic. There’s still a Lucifer. He still doesn’t lie. It’s still set in L.A. There’s still a Lux. And there’s still a Maz. But where the source material focused on deeper questions of free will and predestination, weaving them into an ambitious, modern fantasy tale tailored for a niche audience—a version that might’ve fit in somewhere like HBO, but we digress—Fox’s Lucifer reframes the story with a formula viewers are intimately familiar with: the police procedural. Lucifer’s kicking around L.A. in the midst of an existential crisis, but here he becomes enamored of Det. Chloe Decker (Lauren German) and joins the LAPD as a civilian consultant to help her work cases. A bit contrived? Sure, but Kapinos and company manage to weave this with the fantastical elements adapted from the comics (clever, no?): Lucifer and Decker investigate a stripper’s death, then Lucifer tries to track down his stolen angel’s wings; the gang’s at a murder trial, then God’s ex-wife escapes from Hell and shows up on Earth.
On the surface, Lucifer resembles other successful series that add a new twists to old formulas: Think Castle, but with Satan, or White Collar, but with, you know, Satan. (Lucifer and Matt Bomer do share an affinity for well-tailored suits. Hmm). Now midway through its second season, though, Lucifer has managed quite a lot of fantasy world-building, wrapped up tightly in the case-of-the-week format that keeps the engine running. There’s a dash of what you know—the charming, familiar chemistry between Ellis and German—alongside a generous helping of something fresh for the genre.
A solid ratings performer, it’s clear the series’ creative team made the right nips and tucks to bring the character to the small screen, despite resistance from fans skeptical of the changes made to the original. (Sometimes it’s really good to be wrong.) In fact, fans have come to support the series on its own merits, and not simply those of the source material. The characters are likable. The cases are clever. The fact that Lucifer once ruled Hell isn’t what makes him interesting, it’s his struggle to figure out what he’ll do next. In Fox’s marketing, the comic connection is rarely, if ever, mentioned: It’s a springboard, not a crutch.
If anything, Lucifer is an exploration of what can be done with a comic book premise when you strip it down to its fundamental elements and find a way to make them fit a different medium. As any comic reader can tell you, the form is a whole lot more than zombies and superheroes. As networks dig deeper for ideas, Lucifer shows that even the most ambitious comics can make the leap in an audience-friendly way, while still retaining the DNA that made the comic worth adapting in the first place.
Trying to appeal to comic fans familiar with the pre-existing property, while attracting general audiences, is the silver bullet of comic adaptations: The Walking Dead nailed it, for instance, while NBC’s short-lived Constantine couldn’t stick the landing. As networks struggle to find this delicate balance, Lucifer is proof positive that the devil really is in the details.
Trent Moore is an award-winning journalist and professional geek. You can read more of his stuff at Syfy’s Blastr, and keep up with all his shenanigans @trentlmoore.