Netflix’s first South African original series, Shadow, opens with our vigilante protagonist beating up bad guys in a room. Mid-scene, he gets stabbed in his lower leg with a fork. But guess what? He hardly flinches or reacts because he doesn’t feel pain. As a child, he was struck by lightning which affected his nervous system. As an adult, he’s Shadrach ”Shadow” Khumalo, an ex-cop and superhero saving residents in crime-riddled Johannesburg. Shadow is an eight-part, gritty crime drama that began airing on Netflix a week ago, and with Marvel-Netflix shows in the vein of Luke Cage and The Punisher and superhero fatigue, Shadow barely stands out.
But the show is still rooted in the sensibilities that makes it African. Even more, it tweaks the superhero template for an African audience with tone and language. In an interview with Gadget, writer and director of the show Gareth Crocker was asked how Netflix acquired Shadow: ”We didn’t approach Netflix. We made it series first, financed it ourselves, and it went out to the market. Very fortunate for us, Netflix loved the show and acquired it. There was a very big chance, and it took a lot of courage, especially considering we are the first show that has been acquired.”
Shadow is a vigilante for hire, meaning you can employ his services if you think someone stole your pet cat. Interestingly, his clients are all women, and they come to him broken, abused, traumatised and violated by bad men. The first episode Mary’s Blackmail is culturally resonant, and follows a murderous, blackmailing mobster who uses the nude photos of women to extort money from them. Snow Globe Killer feels like a crime story South African author Lauren Beukes would write: a disturbed man who stalks and kidnaps women and puts them in freezing snow globes to die. There’s Something in The House, which is my favourite, hews closely to the horror genre: Faith, Shadow’s cousin, is spooked by strange happenings in her house and Shadow wades in like a paranormal investigator.
Shadow pulsates with female pain and suffering. Even the women in Shadow’s life, his sister Zola (Tumi Ngloma) and new housemate and doctor Ashley (Amanda du-Point), battle with their own private upheavals. Zola is a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair, an accident she was involved in when their family was driving to the hospital after Shadow was struck my lightning. Ashley moonlights as a stripper in a club, and things turn deadly when a sadistic, businessman wants her for himself.
Beyond that, Shadow is a total beefcake, all muscles and episode 6 Dare to Die has a lot of Shadow’s body to feast your eyes on. Just promise me you won’t die. Shadow is played by South African author Pallance Dladla, who slips into the familiar, action-figure archetype: the daredevil recklessness of Tom Cruise, and the quiet efficacy of Keanu Reeves. The show manages to scoop out some laughs, the action sequences are decent and Johannesburg is a city that devours its own. Shadow is on Netflix as a bingeable monolith, each episode clocking at fifty minutes. But if you are looking something to watch this weekend, it’s a show I’ll recommend.