‘Shadow’ hits Netflix with a muffled bang

“No pain, no gain” means “no experience, no quality”

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Netflix released "Shadow" on March 8, making the release the studio's first from a South African studio with an entirely South African cast. 

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“Shadow” is a six-hour eight-episode Netflix series — the studio’s first from a South African television studio with a South African cast. The action-thriller series landed on Netflix March 8. It’s certainly encouraging to see a relatively small and underrepresented area make a global media debut, but it’s nevertheless important to prevent this fact from unnecessarily clouding the way that this show is received. The reality that “Shadow” is a deeply amateur project, one with far more heart than brains.

The show follows the exploits of ex-cop Shadrach “Shadow” Khumalo (Pallance Dladla), a mercenary/vigilante for hire trying to clean up the streets of Johannesburg while also raising money to care for his paraplegic sister Zola (Tumie Ngumla). As he eliminates gangsters, crime bosses and serial killers with a storm of fists and bullets, Shadow inches ever closer to confronting his own demons and the tragic loss that drove him to leave the force in the first place.

The plot summary may make the show sound like a crime thriller like “Person of Interest” or “The Equalizer,” but in actuality, the show’s ambitions may lie closer along the lines of superhero fare like “Arrow” or “Luke Cage.” In public, Shadow is a charming and almost comically free-spirited bachelor, but in private, he is a near-unstoppable warrior with a bizarre origin story and power — he is unable to feel pain due to a childhood encounter with lightning.

In some ways, the show structures itself more competently than the average superhero show — a base of operations is well established, Shadow’s motivations are clear and relate to his backstory and each of Shadow’s friends serve a distinct purpose which aids his campaign against crime. But the concept is mired with flaws in its execution — Shadow’s portrayal as an unambiguously heroic figure is undermined by his reliance on graphic violence and murder, the action scenes are muddled by terrible editing and Shadow’s immunity to pain is rarely useful or even brought up.

These issues are at their worst in the first four episodes, which try to sell Shadow as a dark and brooding character delving into a dark underworld of somewhat realistic crimes. The overt seriousness of Shadow’s work in these episodes just doesn’t sync up with the very goofy and laid-back atmosphere of his personal life, and if that extreme gap is meant to be an intentional character dichotomy, then the ordering and length of scenes don’t serve that intent at all. 

These episodes are also the most poorly written, as the show has absolutely no idea how to properly introduce important characters and acts as though simply telling the audience to be invested will make it so. Some of the episode plots rely on characters acting unintelligently or unreasonably, and essential information is occasionally misrepresented or outright contradicted within the same episode, possibly suggesting hasty rewrites during filming. Most critically, an inattention to pacing and sound design leaves the show with basically no control over its mood and very few tools to build tension. It would be understandable for many viewers to drop the show for these first episodes out of sheer disinterest or confusion over its direction.

Those willing to stick around for the fifth episode will find that “Shadow” has a marked uptick in quality at its halfway point. With most of the character introductions and backstory elements out of the way, the show can put more effort into casual character dynamics, and the whole cast quickly becomes very likeable. Dladla in particular is a charismatic lead with endearing chemistry with the rest of the cast. 

The episodes also become better structured and start working with more ridiculous and unorthodox criminals, allowing the show to demonstrate more creativity. The shift syncs up much better with Shadow’s adventurous action-hero vibe, moving him away from being “the African Punisher” and more toward a “Friendly Neighborhood Shadow-Man.” These episodes are also the best at taking advantage of the great variety of locations in and around Johannesburg, using distinct and exotic locales for action sequences. In its second half “Shadow” becomes a much more enjoyable affair with high points that can help forgive its flaws.

Looking at the arc of the series, there’s a number of other issues dragging the show further down. The foreshadowing is mostly inept, and the timing of dramatic reveals and twists are completely ineffective with no real emotional impact or change in audience perspective. The consequences of seemingly important decisions are either absent or spaced way too far apart to be memorable, and the show has no core thematic values to center itself around. 

“Shadow” is a great showing of talent on the part of the South African television industry with a lot of passion and a distinct flavor. But without smart writing and competent editing, it’s little more than a mediocre action novelty.

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