Partners ‘Til the End: Lucifer Showrunners Ildy Modrovich and Joe Henderson
“I’m proud of the fact that we have a show that has the weirdest track ever,” says Lucifer co-showrunner Joe Henderson says. “You can have a show that airs for six seasons that people just watch or a show that people fought tooth and nail [for] to get the ending they wanted. And we fought to give them the ending that they deserved.”
The uniquely fraught road to get Lucifer to the end of his journey is intrinsically intertwined with the show’s sudden premature cancellation from Fox in 2018 and a rowdy social media campaign to resurrect the show at Netflix, its present home. Though the show had steady views but was not as popular as others in its genre at the time (Grimm, Sleepy Hollow), it still came as a shock to loyal viewers when in 2018 Fox, Lucifer’s first home, cancelled it just after three seasons—and on a big cliffhanger, no less. Fans took to social media by the millions with #SaveLucifer gaining attention from, and ultimately being saved by Netflix, which offered Lucifer a two-season extension. Season Five was written and directed as its series conclusion, but in the midst of wrapping up the series, Netflix coerced the showrunners into making one last deal with the Devil. What was supposed to be a final fifth 10-episode season got extended to 16-episodes, then the streaming overlords proposed a surprise extension for a sixth—and very final— series finale just as they were wrapping up their original season five conclusion. The show’s popularity continues to break streaming records even after the series has ended.
“Doesn’t everyone have a bit of fear in them?” asks co-showrunner Ildy Modrovich. “I don’t believe in the adage about ‘everything happens for a reason,’ but I do believe the one about making lemonade out of lemons” she says of joining the show after a passion project based on the interpretation of a Carrie Underwood lyric fell apart. “For instance, if that Carrie Underwood show would have happened—as much as I loved it—I wouldn’t have done Lucifer. And I was really brokenhearted when that show didn’t go, but I can’t imagine my life without the Devil in it.”
The Henderson and Modrovich Variety Hour
Before Henderson was in the Lucifer writer’s room facilitating storylines about an orgy-having, whiskey-drinking, candy dandy rave donut-eating Devil, he was a nerd. During our conversation about his youth, he shares his love of books, avidly playing Dungeons & Dragons and having written a 1,400-page novel (“it was terrible, but I finished it”). The most egregious of all: his unabashed love for the Dave Matthews Band (“Don’t judge me”).
As the middle child of a plumber father and prison therapist mother, Henderson bundled his love of fantasy realms and prose to find a way to express himself via writing: “Probably deep down, I wanted attention in my own way, found it in writing and, in doing so, fell in love with storytelling.”
During his time at the University of Iowa, Henderson dabbled in English, psychology and communication studies in hopes of being a lawyer, but fell in love with screenwriting—something the curriculum didn’t emphasize at the time. “It was one of those programs where you end up teaching each other as much as you’re actually learning,” Henderson says. “There were, like, two scripts in the library you could get ahold of, so I found other people who were interested and we sort of taught each other how to write screenplays. This ended up being invaluable to me—instead of reading lessons, I had to figure out the logic behind the rules of screenwriting.”
Henderson’s commitment to lawyer-dom was nearly solidified by lack of access to the Hollywood internship pipeline: “I’d ask people about internships and they’d be like ‘Internships are impossible to get. You’re never going to get a job in LA.’ So, I was going to be a lawyer: I got great grades, I worked really hard, I was going to graduate college in three years because I had gotten a bunch of credits in high school. I was just that good student, trying to be a good boy and live a good life. But then, I got to that point where you realize: well, does this [path] excite me? Or is it just what I think I have to do? And I decided to take a risk on myself or else I’d regret it.” In 2001 Henderson moved to Los Angeles with very little money, two close friends and a dream.
Meanwhile, on the outskirts of Los Angeles in the city of Camarillo, Modrovich was marching to the beat of her own bohemian drummer. “I wanted to be a thespian, dammit!” Modrovich says with mock dramatics about her high school ambitions and studying theater at UCLA. “But I was met with the reality that I was just going to be playing myself. I went to this audition where I had to wear a tight red dress and do the Macarena, and I remember thinking to myself: ‘Yeah, this is not it.’”
Growing up as the daughter of a “very odd and interesting” biochemist father and prolific, award-winning romance novelist mother imbued Modrovich with a unique family dynamic.“My dad was eccentric and weird,” Modrovich recalls. “I would come home and see him playing the accordion in his Speedo, and I was like ‘Well, that’s what everybody’s dad does, right?’ My mom [Kathleen Creighton] started late in life; she published her first book when she was 40, won awards and has written over 50 books since. I think my upbringing gave me a different perspective on life.”
By 29, Modrovich had studied abroad in France, graduated from UCLA, done a stint in painting and fine arts at a school in San Francisco, and planned on being a teacher before coming back to start a rock band—something she would stick with for 11 years. “I squandered my 20s by being in a rock band,” Modrovich admits jokingly. “Me and some other disillusioned friends formed a band. It started off as a joke, but we got better. Writing and playing songs was so fun.”
Though Modrovich was a creative at heart, her inclination to become a professional writer on TV didn’t start until her late 20s, taking an offer from a friend to work on a Jane Austen-esque period piece: “When I look back, I’ve always written—poetry, lyrics for the band—but it just didn’t occur to me to be a professional writer. I’m so glad I never became an actor, because I get way too nervous. It wasn’t until I was almost about to turn 30 where I went ‘Oh my God, I don’t think the rockstar thing is going to work out.”
Those early years were rough. To get to work in the early days of being an assistant, Henderson took up cycling—sort of. He purchased a bike (“which I’m pretty sure was a children’s bike”) just to get to a location where he could carpool with another assistant who would then drive them down to Santa Monica. Henderson spent nine years as an assistant but never let the stagnancy interfere with his bigger plan: “That experience really grounded me, because I really pushed myself. Sure, I got every coffee that could be gotten. But more importantly, I met awesome people working their butts off and I kept writing.”
Modrovich and her writing partner had sold a script to FX, which was just on the cusp of the booming popularity of cable TV with The Shield and the then-upcoming Nip/Tuck. Though the development plan fell through, she credits her script shopping experience as a great teaching moment: “Thank God they picked Nip/Tuck, because I would have no clue what I was doing had our show gone. It definitely helped me write dialogue that I think sounds good coming out of somebody’s mouth, hopefully.”
Eventually, Henderson and Modrovich worked their way through the Hollywood producer-writer pipeline, collectively racking up credits at Graceland, White Collar, CSI: Miami and Californication before finally colliding with each other to help resurrect the Devil.
Adapting the Devil Their Way
Though Modrovich and Henderson were adapting the series based on the Neil Gaiman comics, they still had to figure out how to contend with the Devil and his hellfire pit full of biblical baggage. As a huge comic book fan, Henderson was a bit wary about the adaptation before he signed on to helm the project after the original series developer, Tom Kapinos, left early on in the first season.
“I love Sandman and Mike Carey’s Lucifer run” Henderson says. “So, when I heard they were turning this awesome character into a police procedural, I was pissed. I was like ‘You’re ruining one of my favorite characters.’ But then I watched the wonderful pilot that Tom Kapinos, Ildy and Len Wiseman had done taking the spirit of the comic and rethinking it in this form. Then I was like, ‘That is somewhere I want to live. That is somewhere where I can tell stories about mythology, about religion, about faith, about everything.’”
Both showrunners came to Lucifer with similar religious backgrounds. Henderson is a lapsed Catholic who keeps some of the basic concepts like treating others with kindness and the positive power of faith; Modrovich turned away from the notion of organized religion in college, but still thinks of herself as a spiritual person. When it came to reflecting that duality on-screen, Modrovich adds: “I didn’t want Lucifer to be an anti-religious show, but we also didn’t want it to be a religious show. At heart, it’s a family story. A son who feels abandoned by his father was misunderstood and misrepresented—that was something we could all identify with. And you have this real Beauty and the Beast kind of romance at the heart of it too. What’s great about the religious stuff is, we used it for great characters and storylines. [And] the message became, if the Devil can be redeemed, so can anyone. Forgiveness is a big part of most religions.”
In fandom, Henderson’s episodes are known for their paradoxical narratives, where everything seems fun and lighthearted on the surface but by the third act characters (and the audience themselves) are blindsided by some kind of mishap. Is this particular ironic stance of not taking things at face value something that reflects Henderson’s own upbringing, or was it more for the purpose of showing the Devil in a new light?
“I think it’s both,” Henderson says, “embracing the inherent value of a character who is so defined by what you think he is, but also discovering what he’s hiding deep down. I think all of us have that sort of duality and sense of being seen as something you aren’t, or being wrongly judged based on who you are. Part of it is that [idea] of that nerdy kid in high school who hoped he could be cool mixed with taking a character who is so iconically one thing and embracing the idea of, what if he was something wonderfully different?”
Henderson mentions that he’s always found writing scenes between Lucifer and his friend-therapist, Dr. Linda Martin, to be one of the most rewarding parts of his time as co-showrunner. Conversations between Dr. Linda and Lucifer are more cathartic and maternal in nature than any other character Lucifer voices his concerns to in the show. Part of this is because Dr. Linda is able to parse through Lucifer’s hijinks and misguided interpretations to unearth the emotional issues hidden beneath his normally happy-go-lucky demeanor. The dynamics of Dr. Linda being used as the conduit to express Lucifer’s humanity makes sense when you consider that Henderson’s own mother was a prison therapist.
His season five episode “Family Dinner” is a great example of the familial homages he brings to the table. The episode centers around a beautiful piece of exposition around a dinner table in Dr. Linda’s home where Lucifer and his siblings spend their time confronting their absentee father, God, and each other, about their lingering abandonment issues for the first time in thousands of years. Dr. Linda is able to translate what the almighty God can’t quite understand: Lucifer feels as though his father doesn’t love him no matter what he does. This is not to suggest that Henderson had any of these same concerns with this own father, but more to reflect upon the dichotomy of the inner mechanisms of this episode’s making, made all the more sentimental by the fact there is a dedication to his father that also pops up just before the credits roll.
Modrovich’s own musical prowess in the hands of a police procedural could have been dangerous (see: Cop Rock)—instead, the way she finds a way to naturally incorporate songs into the storyline adds a special sparkle to what could have been a droll entry to the supernatural police procedural.
During our conversation, Modrovich admits that an episode of hers isn’t over until “someone sings or the audience cries.” Throughout Lucifer’s run, Modrovich’s legacy includes some of the best vocal performances from the show’s lead, Tom Ellis, in vibrant, campy and bombastic numbers such as “Luck be a Lady,” “Another One Bites the Dust” or the soulful crooning of “Bridge over Troubled Water.” But Modrovich is a double threat. As soon as she’ll build up an energetic dance number, she’ll tear the audience down in an instant with an angsty romance scene to plunge fans into a frenzy. “Those kinds of juxtapositions to me is where the best romance lives,” Modrovich explains. “It’s not where somebody gets down on their knee and gushing. It’s moments full of conflict and angst where one of both parties involved are terrified—because, you know, that’s romance.”
The audience can best see this powder keg of conflict and longing via music in season five’s “Bloody Celestial Karaoke Jam.” Lucifer spends the majority of the episode lamenting his pain through a variety of songs like “Wicked Game,” primarily aimed at his frustration in not being able to properly communicate to the love of his life.
“The thing about Lucifer is that—baked in— he’s kind of hard-hearted and closed off, even though he seems open and carefree but he’s been really hurt.” Modrovich says. It’s no secret that Modrovich herself is the queen of yearning, but it’s a wonder just how much of her mother’s own penchant for romance stories and flares for the dramatic has rubbed off on her.“I’m a romantic.” Modrovich defends herself. “But hopefully not in a too sentimental way. It [Lucifer]has romance, it has bittersweet, and it has that painful space that I like romance to live in.”
Giving the Devil His Due: Partners ‘Til the End
“This was the first time I had a true partnership,” Henderson explains about his and Modrovich’s teamwork. “‘Partners ‘til the End’, with all the conversations between Lucifer and Chloe, to me, is also [about] building trust, because we were partners on the show and we really had each other’s back. Showrunning is very difficult and Ildy allowed me to trust.”
Modrovich also chimes in to explain the breadth and depth of their individual perspectives in their partnership also attributed to the show’s success. “Joe widened my imagination. Not to ever compare ourselves to the brilliant Lennon and McCartney, but I do think another person can make you better and give you ideas that you never thought of before and that’s a giant gift. I became more humbled by the experience of trusting someone else’s creative viewpoint as much as you do yours.”
Just as much as the two showrunners trusted each other, the resilient faith within fans of the series also never wavered, even in the face of cancellation. As a multifaceted show about the Devil and all his friends, it often drifts tonally between comedy and melodrama; a risky move but one that it’s passionate fanbase was willing to navigate. Or as Vanity Fair’s Maureen Ryan put it: “If nothing else, Lucifer provides an object lesson in how to take a TV narrative initially centered on an entitled white man with serious daddy issues, broaden it in dozens of smart ways, and make it not just sex-positive, energetic, inclusive and smart, but surprisingly deep and humane.”
“I think something that people connected to the most in Lucifer is the base human desire to be loved despite all your ugly, all your flaws, and all the things that make us self-conscious,” Modrovich says. “We hide all of those things especially in our social media world, where the shadow self might be an embarrassment. Lucifer seems like this perfect dude, but inside he feels like a monster, and all the characters have something they are struggling or contending with.”
Just as Lucifer’s journey was prophetic in the way that he started out as Hell’s torturer and then its healer, there’s also something prophetic about the supposed journey Modrovich and Henderson were almost destined to take. In another universe, Modrovich could have been a famous rock singer; Henderson could have been a courtroom lawyer. But in this realm, Henderson elicited closing (narrative) arguments in the writer’s room; Modrovich composed dialogue and emotion into entertaining melodies.
“It’s so inspiring,” Henderson says about the lingering effects of the show’s unique path on his journey forward to other projects. “It inspires me to think of what this path was. It inspires me to think that shows can find an audience and that even if you think you’re writing something that no one is paying much attention to, you might be surprised. I mean yeah, that cancellation was hard, but that’s what made the victories all the sweeter. That’s what made finishing the show all the more satisfying. We were writing a show that we were writing for ourselves as much as anyone else because we weren’t quite sure who all was watching. And then to find out that so many people love the thing that was so personal to us was amazing to everyone involved. That was part of the fun of this. The show isn’t mine, Ildy’s, or Tom Ellis‘s. This is the Lucifer family show. I really believe that.”