Tom Ellis on 'Lucifer'

FOX has taken “Lucifer,” one of the most intellectually complicated and morally challenging properties in the DC Comics library, and made a TV show. Naturally, they turned it into a police procedural.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing! Police procedural is a time-honored genre that works well on television, with a crime of the week to give the audience a satisfying resolution each episode, while leaving room for overarching themes and character development. That’s exactly what The CW did with DC’s “iZombie,” a quirky book that would have been pretty hard to pull off in its original form, and that turned out really well.

Plus, as a bonus, some of the intellectual rigor of the original “Lucifer” concept remains in the series, which can service some of those overarching themes mentioned above.

And what are those? So glad you asked.

The legendary Neil Gaiman became legendary in large part because of his magnum opus, the “Sandman” series for DC’s mature-readers line, Vertigo. “Sandman” was a hugely ambitious series focusing on Morpheus, also called (among other things) Dream, an anthropomorphic representation of dreaming, along with his six siblings: Death, Delirium/Delight, Desire, Despair, Destiny and Destruction, whose names are also their function. Together they were The Endless, the foundation of a vast cosmological tapestry Gaiman wove, which included parts (or wholes) of various mythologies, after-lifes, religions and belief systems — some from existing cultures, some invented.

The Christian Heaven and Hell were part of this tapestry, and in “Sandman” #23 (1991) the Lord of Dreams goes to Hell, where he expects to fight Lucifer, also called (among other things) The Morningstar, in order to free a former lover. So we meet the First of the Fallen, who is pretty much what we expect, because he’s based on The Bible stories most of us know, as well as the way he was conceived and presented in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” with bits of Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy” tossed in for good measure. (He is also drawn to look a bit like David Bowie, which was Gaiman’s idea.)

To Sandman’s surprise, Lucifer doesn’t want to fight. Instead, he quits. He literally resigns as Lord of Hell and gives the Dream Lord the key. Which is a pretty wild concept because, you know, what about all those unsupervised demons on the loose? Where will the tormented souls go? And God only knows (literally) what other metaphysical upheaval will occur.

Lucifer says that’s not his problem. He describes his reasons, in the course of which we see how the Christian afterlife works in this series. It’s pretty much what you’d expect, except for a few things we mortals keep getting wrong, which quite annoys Old Scratch.

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For example, The First of the Fallen is pretty tired of everyone ascribing every sin in history to him. “Why do they blame me for their little failings?” he gripes. “They use my name as if I spend my entire day sitting on their shoulders, forcing them to commit acts they would otherwise find repulsive. … ‘The Devil made me do it.’ I have never made one of them do anything. Never. They live their own tiny lives. I do not live their lives for them.”

So, yeah, in Gaiman’s cosmology, humans are responsible for their own sins. We’re just so petty we have to blame them on the proudest (former) archangel in Creation, a creature who wouldn’t dirty his hands with us. Ouch.

Also, Lucifer is irritated by all those movies and TV shows and comic books and songs about him wanting to trade for our souls. “They talk of me going around and buying souls, like a fishwife come market day,” he grouses, “never stopping to ask themselves why. I need no souls. And how can anyone own a soul?”

And while he doesn’t get around to it in this issue, we eventually find out that Lucifer — despite being tagged “Lord of Lies” — always tells the truth. He’s too proud and self-important to lie, which makes a perverse sense. He tells mortals the utter truth, and they find their own path to sin.

So he decides he’s fed up, and he quits. He sums up: “The Lord of Hell will do what he damn well likes!” (Which, if you think about it, is the attitude that got him stuck in Hell in the first place. Some people never learn!)

All of it which is morbidly fascinating and perversely entertaining, but that’s not the meat of the issue. Lucifer quitting his job is more than just Creation’s proudest angel once again refusing to do what he’s told. Instead, he brings up the two words religious scholars have been arguing about since there were religious scholars: free will.

“You know,” he tells Morpheus about his rebellion, “I still wonder how much of it was planned. How much of it [God] knew in advance. I thought I was rebelling. I thought I was defying his rule. No … I was merely fulfilling another tiny segment of his great and powerful plan. If I had not rebelled, perhaps another would have, in my stead.”

Yep, here’s the devil discussing predestination. In his mind, he isn’t bad — rather, God made him bad. Of course, let’s take it as a given that Lucifer isn’t terribly good at self-examination, and he’s probably just looking for someone to blame, like the mortals do.

RELATED: Tom Ellis doesn’t want ‘Lucifer’ to be a run-of-the-mill devil

But it’s worth putting to the test, so Lucifer quits his Biblically assigned role. He eventually ends up running a nightclub in Los Angeles (because of course), during a 75-issue run of his own title, where he has all sorts of adventures while the predestination vs. free will argument hangs over the proceedings like a Sword of Damocles. Or maybe a Great Flood, or an Egyptian plague.

Sounds like the makings of good cop show, doesn’t it? No, of course it doesn’t. But that’s how FOX is going to play it, with Beelzebub helping out a policewoman who, for as-yet undisclosed reasons, is immune to his charms. He finds that fascinating — and challenging — while she gets to put a few bad guys away. We’re probably lucky they didn’t call it “Devil Detective.”

And what are those powers? Well, aside from being immortal — pretty handy with all the gun play — he’s very persuasive. He can get almost anyone to admit their deepest desires. That doesn’t sound like much, but it sure makes interrogations a snap.

And what of the original themes from the “Lucifer” series? Well, as it happens, most of them are in the TV show, too. Lucifer has resigned as Lord of Hell, and Heaven isn’t too happy about it. (He has a nemesis in the angel Amenadiel.) He doesn’t buy souls, and he doesn’t lie. He’s very prideful, and believes he’s been mistreated by “Dad.”

Oh, and the predestination question is in play, too. “Lately I’ve been doing a fair amount of thinking,” he tells Amenadiel. “Do you think I’m inherently evil, or because Dad decided I was?”

So “Lucifer” is a buddy-cop show that has the possibility of a theological conundrum, which may or may not play a significant role. That alone is enough to get some people upset, as with the One Million Moms organization, which has put heat on Olive Garden for advertising on the show.

Whether that proves a problem for “Lucifer’s” producers will have to play out, but the character on the show — fleshed out quickly and well by Welsh actor Thomas Ellis — would laugh it off. Helping the LAPD is just how he gets his kicks.

After all, he says, “I like to punish people too!”

Posted by:Andrew A. Smith, Tribune News Service