Luke is a normal teenage boy living in London, and since he is on the verge of adulthood he is looking forward to getting his driving licence and trying to muddle through the final months or years of his school life. He never really knew his father, who died in a car crash when Luke was still a baby, and he lives with his widowed, single mother in a semi-luxurious flat. It seems that she is a teacher, so how she can afford this kind of flat in London will remain one of the unintended mysteries of the show.
Then one day, out of the blue, a shady American named Rupert Galvin turns up at the flat and starts interfering in Luke’s life. Luke’s heritage on his father’s side seems more complex than he thought, and he finds himself dragged into a hidden world of non-human creatures.
Demons was cancelled after just one season – and this being a British TV show that season only contained 6 episodes.
This ITV show has often been maligned as a Buffy rip-off. And you can see why: Buffy is an American teenage girl who, guided by a middle-aged British mentor named Rupert Giles, follows her destiny and fights vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness – all the while struggling to retain a normal teenage and school life.
Luke is a British teenage-boy who, guided by a middle-aged American mentor named Rupert Galvin, follows his destiny and fights vampires, demons, and other “half-life” – all the while struggling to retain a normal teenage and school life.
Both are aided by a small group of friends and both prepare for their tasks by doing research in a library of occult books and by training in martial arts. There are other parallels, in the family and in the character dynamics, for example, but that would lead too far…
But things are not that simple. For one thing, Buffy had ended its run more than five years before Demons was broadcast, so there is no real coat-tail-riding effect. And secondly, Demons borrows much more from Bram Stoker than from Buffy. What it all boils down to, in my opinions, is that British TV shows with their very limited number of episodes – 6 in the case of Demons – need to establish premise, characters, and character dynamics very quickly. Forced exposition is one way to do that, clever writing would be another. But a fairly sensible approach can also be to mirror established show conventions, genre tropes, and character constellations in order to hit the ground running. This is what the Demons team seem to have opted for in order to deal with this problem, and I cannot blame them.
So, to put the cart before the horse: is this show any good? Not really. Is it worth watching? Probably, considering its interesting elements and considering the fact that you are looking at a very limited time investment of 6 x 45 minutes.
The interesting elements include the characters and character constellations; the cast; the connections to Stoker (underused); some design elements; and the general premise. The list of problems and shortcomings, however, is much longer. Most of them are rather minor issues, but it is their sheer number and relentlessness that bring this show down. For starters the title theme song is exceedingly annoying. Then there is the poor quality of the CG – this is ITV in 2009, remember, so you can imagine what that looks like; not to mention shoddy dialogue, plot holes, etc. There is also the issue that some of the humour and references in connection with the situation in which they appear might be accidentally interpreted as racist by some viewers.
Let’s take a look at the characters and the cast. Luke and Rupert are joined by Rupert’s mysterious associate Mina (a renowned concert pianist) and by Luke’s childhood friend Ruby who tags along more or less uninvited.
The characters and their constellation and dynamics work great from the get-go. Luke is written well as a typical teenage boy, although we witness very little of his life, so there were very few things they could get wrong. The same goes for Ruby – but it has to be said that, while there is lots of good writing concerning this character, Ruby is also saddled with tropes. Some of these tropes are teenage-girl related, some are “damsel-in-distress” related (though later alleviated as she gets more agency), but most are connected to her being written as a “salt-of-the-earth”-type character.
Mina is blind but has psychic abilities that give her short visions and premonitions. These are often used as plot instigators, plot elements, or simply to move the plot along in some other way.
The Rupert Galvin character is weighed down by his strictness towards Luke. If you think about Rupert Giles on Buffy, he too was strict with her, especially in the early seasons. That had a lot to do with the fact that he cared about her and her safety. So his strictness was mitigated by his care and affection, as well as his British friendliness and politeness. Rupert Galvin also cares about Luke, but for the writers this male character’s care and affection for a teenage boy is far less easy to express and transport than it was in the case of Giles and Buffy. Again, a difficult situation for writers is not helped by the fact that they have to cram everything into 6 episodes. And Galvin’s American approach to things – direct, impolite, unfriendly – robs the character of any of the other mitigating factors that balanced the Giles character so nicely. This makes it very difficult to get Galvin to be a likeable character. Instead, they give him a tragic backstory in order to explain and excuse his brashness and job obsession.
The actors are doing a good job. Holliday Grainger is particularly good in displaying Ruby’s range of emotions and in selling the more humorous lines and moments. The actress playing Mina, Zoë Tapper, is also very good and she has a great screen presence that matches the complexity and mysteriousness of Mina’s character. Her type lies somewhere on the Kristen Stewart/Eva Green/Lara Pulver line, which also helps with selling a detached, reserved, and mysterious character. It is no surprise that Grainger and Tapper have found much success in the decade that has passed since then.
Christian Cooke (who, from some angles, resembles Gabriel Garcia Bernal) also does a good job as Luke, although the writing does at times ask more of him than the directing is allowing him to give.
Supporting roles are filled by great British character actors, such as Mackenzie Crook and Richard Wilson (One Foot in the Grave). And Saskia Wickham does a fine job as Luke’s mom in the little screen-time that she is given.
The only real problem is Philip Glenister as Rupert Galvin. While his acting is definitely good, he is up against the somewhat unlikeable character (as outlined above) and against some really poor dialogue. And all is aggravated by the American accent that Glenister is bravely trying to pull off, and that, reportedly, someone at Sony’s New York office assured ITV was “acceptable”. It is not. Since English is not my first language, this fake accent is not too painful for me (the dialogue is worse), but it is still distracting. The backlash in the press reportedly caused Glenister to refuse to return for a second season and together with falling ratings this meant that the show never went past season 1.
But Glenister is not to blame. Galvin was written as an American character in the script, and Glenister decided to give it a go. It would have been the responsibility of the show-runners and ITV to change his character to be British, or to cast an American actor instead. But I assume ITV was unwilling to provide the money necessary to get an American actor to London for what was effectively a trial run for a show in a specific and limited genre.
And this leads me to the one feeling that you simply cannot shake off watching this: the feeling that there are a lot of good ideas, a lot of potential, but that there was a general slapdash approach in the production. And I was not surprised to learn that the creators behind this show were also behind Hex (in which Zoë Tapper also played a small part), which also felt botched – and I don’t know if it is the show-runners or ITV who are to blame. Hex also had a great premise, great characters, a great cast, and a lot of story potential. Most of it was left unused, and after the short first season the show went downhill very fast. Under-utilising Colin Salmon is always a sin; but he abruptly left mid-season (if I remember correctly) in a move that felt like he had to be somewhere else shooting some other show or film. And the lead actress famously refused to return for a second season. So it is not just a mishandling of the material and a slapdash production. Somehow ITV is unable or monetarily unwilling to make contracts that actually bind their most important cast-members to the show for more than one season. Since ITV also makes Downton Abbey they apparently do know how to run a big and successful show. So maybe they are just unwilling to put the same level of care (and financial commitment) towards shows that lie in a niche genre and are aimed primarily at younger audiences.
Back to Demons.
The show has a number of pop-cultural references, and some humour. That the humour cannot hold up with the writing Joss Whedon did or supervised on Buffy goes without saying. But the humour also does not really have any particularly British quality to it and cannot hold up with the humour I know from the innumerable stock of great British comedy and comedy-drama shows.
And since we are back talking about Buffy again, I would also like to add that (unlike Buffy) Demons has no school scenes. There are, technically, scenes taking place at school – scenes in which Ruby and Luke are meeting up, or scenes in which Galvin picks Luke up right outside of the school building. But there is barely any school environment or school life featured on the show. Time may be one factor in this, but also money/scheduling: representing real school life cannot be done with extras alone, you’d need to introduce additional supporting characters and find capable actors for these roles. An effort that probably seemed unjustified for a six-episode season.
On the visual side, the show has some pretty sets, including the library. And a number of the props are really nice – I am not sure if these were specifically made for this show or reused from some earlier project, but someone did at some point do some really nice work on these. The weapons in particular have a distinct steampunk look, which I always enjoy.
Moving past the shoddy CGI, there are also some problems in the makeup department, mostly because the show’s practical makeup is an acquired taste. That is not a question of quality in terms of craft, which is good, but a question of the artistic decision behind the style chosen. The way they are written, the show’s villainous characters are often over-the-top – and the make-up style was picked to fit that vibe. It is a bare-bones style that resembles the style you would chose on a children’s TV show, or for a stage performance – although more a Victorian stage-performance than a modern one. An odd hybrid between simple and burlesque, and perhaps not only inspired by the over-the-top writing but also the occasional steampunk feel of the sets and props. The writing makes these villainous characters all resemble particularly nightmarish versions of characters Alice might meet in Wonderland, and the makeup style fits that tone. So there is a certain Burtonesque quality to the character-writing, and the makeup looks like something Burton might choose if he was on a shoestring budget.
As I said, visually this is an acquired taste. And I am not sure that it was a particularly good choice for a show that is – at the end of the day – a rather run-of-the-mill horror mystery-drama. But it is at least an interesting choice.
So why am I writing about this show on my blog? Not because one decade ago some people somewhere complained about it being a Buffy rip-off. There is a considerable vampire element in this show: vampires exist in this universe as one “high level” species within the realm of the non-humans, and one of the six episodes deals with vampires specifically. And as at least one character on the show has a connection to Bram Stoker, there is a general acknowledgement that vampirism is of more immediate importance to our group of heroes and not just one “half-life“ segment amongst many. There is no doubt that a second season would have developed that theme further.
So, to repeat what I said earlier, this is not really a good show, but it is not bad either. I would rate it at 5.5 to 6.0 out of 10. And since it is not particularly long there is no harm in checking it out if you are interested in some of the aspects mentioned. But I doubt anyone will fall head-over-heels in love with it.