NEW YORK — “Lucifer” has come knocking. Will you let him in?
As its title suggests, this new drama series, airing on Fox Mondays 9-10 p.m. EST, takes the fallen angel who embodies pure evil for its central character. As such, it naturally needs to be approached with abundant caution.
Wariness is all the more appropriate since the show, based on comic-book characters created by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg for DC Entertainment’s Vertigo imprint, attempts to rebrand the Father of Lies as a figure with considerable audience appeal. In fact, viewers will likely find themselves rooting for the success of this version of the Prince of Darkness — to whose personality a notable amount of light has been added.
There’s obviously nothing sympathetic about Satan’s persona as portrayed in Scripture or tradition. Yet the demands of popular entertainment make a relentlessly wicked villain a less-than-marketable idea, especially across the broad expanse of a TV series.
Thus, watchers of a certain age will remember that even Larry Hagman’s J.R. Ewing, the endlessly conniving black-hat of CBS’ prime-time soap “Dallas” had his good points.
As for the gray moral area occupied by this program’s Lucifer Morningstar, played by Tom Ellis (“Merlin”), it represents a tricky-to-navigate nexus of faith and culture. It also serves as a breeding ground for any number of philosophical questions.
Should the Devil be off-limits entirely to television and film writers? Must they portray him in the inky tones laid out by Christian theology? Are the motivations for softening his character entirely artistic — or is the real intent to celebrate him as a freedom-loving rebel throwing off the supposed yoke of Judeo-Christian morality? If goodness is to be mixed in with his evildoing, how much is too much?
If nothing else, the folks behind “Lucifer” are at least entirely straightforward about their main character’s true identity. The pilot begins with these words, seen against a black screen: “In the beginning … the angel Lucifer was cast out of heaven and condemned to rule hell for all eternity; until he decided to take a vacation. Los Angeles 2015 A.D.”
We’re then introduced to Ellis in the guise of a charming, charismatic, British-accented James Bond type. He’s first glimpsed driving a black convertible, its license plate reading “FALL1N1” as Cage the Elephant’s “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” plays in the background. So much for subtlety.
Having abandoned his infernal throne and reinvented himself as the owner of an upscale nightclub called Lux, Lucifer thoroughly enjoys his new, overindulgence-filled lifestyle, which predictably includes a good deal of womanizing. But he still finds time to pursue seduction of another sort.
He does nothing to conceal who he really is. But the mortals by whom he’s now surrounded are either unwilling or unable to grasp the truth. Helpfully, from his perspective, they remain vulnerably unsure about him.
As the ultimate tempter, his greatest strength lies in his ability to persuade people to act on their own darkest — and most hidden — impulses. Still, he’s careful to point out that free will remains in force.
One victim of Lucifer’s persuasiveness is movie and music star Delilah (AnnaLynne McCord), whose biblically resonant name is, of course, hardly accidental. When she stops by for a visit, the two have an exchange that typifies the program’s tone.
Delilah asks herself if she sold her soul to the devil. “Devil made you do it?” Lucifer scoffs. Then, to make clear her own responsibility in the matter, he reminds her: “Choices are on you.”
“God, I’m a mess,” Delilah complains, only to be further reminded that God had nothing to do with it.
Despite what Lucifer may have to say on that point, however, God is anything but absent from the series as a whole. If not seen, he is at least frequently mentioned under the seemingly prayerful title “Our Father.”
That phrase comes up quite often in Lucifer’s conversations with Lux’s bartender Mazikeen, nicknamed Maze (Lesley-Ann Brandt). Originally a resident of hell, Maze has devotedly followed Lucifer from the underworld to the City of Angels where the two keep up a sexually charged friendship.
“Our Father” is also regularly referred to during apparitions of the heavenly angel Amenadiel (D.B. Woodside). He repeatedly conveys God’s command that Lucifer return to hell, only to have Lucifer refuse.
When Delilah is murdered outside Lux, Lucifer finds himself desperately — if unexpectedly — anxious to find the culprit. To do so, he teams up with Det. Chloe Decker (Lauren German) and, much to Chloe’s dismay, quickly becomes her sidekick.
Unlike anyone else Lucifer has encountered on earth, Chloe is immune to his appeals and cannot be entrapped. Along with Chloe’s genuine desire to help people, her innocence seems to bring out Lucifer’s good side.
In fact, she soon has him displaying such uncharacteristic qualities as compassion and mercy. He even befriends Chloe’s young daughter, Trixie (Scarlett Estevez), a gentle lass who — disturbingly enough — takes an immediate shine to the Evil One.
Lucifer is so shocked by his sudden surge of positive emotions that he takes on a therapist, Linda (Rachael Harris), to work out his confusion.
Just as Trixie is taken in by Lucifer himself, so young people and even mature teens would likely be at risk of being led astray by his namesake series. There is undeniable entertainment value to be found in this offbeat procedural, with its witty dialogue, good production values and talented cast. Yet such aesthetic pleasures hardly mask the spiritual dangers lurking behind them.
An old adage has it that “he who sups with the devil should have a long spoon.” Mature viewers who sit down to this program — which blurs many a moral and spiritual line with its fast-and-loose portrayal of Satan — should come equipped with a strong grounding in their faith and a discerning judgment.
Macina is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.