At first glance, Lucifer doesn’t even seem like an actual TV show. It’s more like a parody of a police procedural. The premise? Tired of the tedium of hell, the devil relocates to Los Angeles to run a nightclub, but when a pop singer dies in front of his club he inserts himself into the murder investigation and becomes an official police consultant, using his powers of persuasion to help a smoking hot detective solve crimes every week. That sounds like one of those fake shows joked about in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which used its closing credits to preview a fake NBC procedural about an animal psychic-turned-cop:
That’s not really that crazy in a world in which two fake psychics (Psych, The Mentalist), a math genius (Numbers), a woman with total recall (Unforgettable), a romance novelist (Castle), a forensics anthropologist (Bones), a guy who becomes the smartest person in the world for a limited period of time when he takes a super pill (Limitless) and a magically preserved Ichabod Crane (Sleepy Hollow) have all become consultants of some kind. A zombie is currently acting as a uniquely capable police consultant over on the CW (iZombie), and if you go further back several vampires have had their turn (Forever Knight, Angel, Moonlight, Blood Ties). Now we can add the literal devil to that list, although here he prefers to be called Lucifer Morningstar.
You could make the argument that Lucifer is a desperate attempt to make a very old concept (i.e., a detective show) seem fresh again, churned out by a broadcast TV system which is shedding viewers and running out of ideas. The fact that Lucifer is based on a comic book is all the better, hopefully guaranteeing some kind of built-in audience. This version of Lucifer started out as a supporting character in Neil Gaiman’s iconic The Sandman series before getting his own spin-off written by Mike Carey. Californication’s Tom Kapinos has now adapted him to the screen, taking many liberties along the way, right down to casting Welsh actor Tom Ellis to play Lucifer even though his hair color is all wrong (at least compared to the comics):
However, the single most important piece to this show is having the perfect guy at the center of it all, and they have exactly that with Ellis. He is rather clearly the reason to watch Lucifer, as argued by io9:
Most of Lucifer’s other elements—including its “sinful Hollywood” setting, and supporting roles played by Lauren German (as Chloe, a no-nonsense LAPD detective who’s weirdly immune to Lucifer’s charms) and Rachael Harris (as Linda, a man-crazy psychiatrist who falls for said charms immediately)—are fairly generic.
But that’s okay, because Ellis kills it. He’s cheeky and funny, and right away we learn the big skill that’s helped him become such a roaring success among humankind: he’s able to get people to confess their darkest desires, just like they’re giving him directions. (This could get old as the series continues, but Ellis has a way of doing it that’s both seductive and hilarious.) But as we soon see, he’s not just a sharp-dressed ladykiller who starts dabbling in police work to stave off boredom. He’s deeply conflicted; the forces of good and evil have been off-kilter since he’s been bopping around on Earth, and both sides very much want him back on his fiery throne, which he’s in no rush to do. He’s also both delighted and terrified to discover that he’s becoming—gasp!—mortal, and that getting in the middle of a gangland war might result in a bullet wound that could actually hurt him.
In a way, this version of Lucifer is Tom Kapino’s new Hank Moody, David Duchovny’s womanizing novelist at the center of Californication, except this time there’s a built-in explanation for his irresistible nature. Through Hank, Kapinos appeared to be working through his own issues with the Hollywood lifestyle, living vicariously through a self-destructive character who often behaved like an ass, suffered surprisingly infrequent consequences as a result of his actions, and got laid more often than John Holmes.
He seemed to, without fail, have an almost magical hold over the opposite sex, but if you ever asked why and “because David Duchovny, regardless of behavior or increased age, is forever lady catnip” wasn’t a good enough answer then the show was kind of hard to take.
On Lucifer, the title character actually does have a magical hold over the opposite sex, and it’s played for laughs. Hank had a tendency toward insufferable self-importance and arrogance, but those same traits on Lucifer are again rather funny, with Ellis’ devil continually talking down to humanity and nonchalantly touting his own immortality. Hank had daddy issues; Lucifer is not overly fond of his Father either. Hank frequently ran into people in the entertainment industry, like directors, agents and actors; Lucifer’s pilot includes a dead pop star as its first case-of-the-week and various members of the music industry as suspects. Heck, Lucifer’s cop partner (Lauren German’s Chloe) looks exactly like a Hollywood actress playing a cop because it turns out her character used to actually be an actress before quitting and pursuing policework to make a difference in the world.
So it’s easy to see what drew Kapinos to the material, and although he could use some more practice on giving his characters less predictable cases-of-the-week he’s effectively established the premise, tone and immediate character arcs for this show. Lucifer is grappling with his developing conscience. Chloe is struggling to be respected as a cop and is at odds with her ex-husband (Kevin Alejandro) and father of their young daughter. The forces of heaven and hell want Lucifer back where he belongs to return balance to the afterlife, and the angels are willing to wage war to get it.
Ultimately, though, it’s easy to see Lucifer turning into a footnote on the list of shows to feature actors playing the devil. These shows don’t tend to last beyond a season or two. Tom Ellis could be better remembered than John Glover’s devil on Brimstone while failing to supplant the legacy of Ray Wise’s brilliant turn on Reaper. For however long Lucifer is around, though, Tom Ellis will most likely continue making it something worth watching. The rest of the show is generic, but maybe it will all eventually catch up to his performance.