It’s time for more comic book TV! Longtime readers know John Constantine from his first appearance as an obnoxious Swamp Thing ally and/or as the star of his own mature-readers DC/Vertigo series that ran for 25 years before it was canceled and replaced by a more mainstream version ready-made for super-hero crossovers. Too many movie viewers first knew him as the focus of just another failed Keanu Reeves vehicle, whose high point was Tilda Swinton as a creepy angel. The new John in NBC’s Constantine is basically Dr. Strange on zero hours’ sleep wearing Harvey Bullock’s clothes. Regardless, the cunning yet selfish antihero has been handled by so many great writers over the decades, shown in so many states of mind operating in so many peculiar ways, that this pilot had no chance of pleasing all the people all of the time.
The basics of the pilot: Matt Ryan plays John Constantine, a sort-of specialized paranormal investigator who carries business cards proclaiming himself “Master of the Dark Arts”. He shows us a few fancy tricks, but his chief marketable skill seems to be curing demonic possession. The pilot has John using his talents like metahuman powers to face off various otherworldly agents who might as well be costumed, all but begging for John to choose himself a super-hero name. And lo, men shall call him…Exorcism Man! Or Super-Exorcist! The Outcaster! Demonstalker! Commander Chalk Circle! The Rune Ranger! The Trafalgar Trenchcoat! The Ritualizer!
The prologue sees John rejecting psychotherapy (you’re not crazy if the mind-blowing evil things you’re seeing are real) and getting nothing out of voluntary shock treatment (doesn’t even muss his hair), then showing us a sample exorcism that goes above and beyond to avoid easy comparison to the Linda Blair prototype, plus throwing in thousands of icky bugs for ambiance. The side effects of the encounter lead him to a young lady named Liv (Lucy Griffiths from True Blood), who’s being menaced by evil demons because she’s a young lady. Along for the ride are a couple of John’s mates from the comics: taxi driver Chas (Charles Halford), of whom those three words are his only aspects to have been translated accurately to TV; and jittery professor Ritchie (Saving Private Ryan‘s Jeremy Davies, arguably the MVP here), who ties in to the infamous Newcastle incident that plays a crucial role in defining John’s character and sentencing him to perdition when he dies, if not sooner.
Meanwhile in a subplot, Lost‘s Harold Perrineau takes over the creepy-angel role as “Manny”, one of those initially useless characters whose sole thankless chore is to tell the hero, “BAD THINGS GONNA HAPPEN SOON.” In case we were expecting singalongs and knot-tying lessons. He does deliver the episode’s most intriguing visual effects in the form of a time-frozen storm that surrounds the scene with motionless water till John wipes it aside like floating tears. Manny isn’t yet a fully evil angel like the ones that Supernatural are probably used to (wouldn’t know, never seen an episode), but “Manny” better not be a terrible pun short for “I am Legion, for we are Manny” or else I’m not even gonna hate-watch future episodes.
All that’s skimming the surface of so much cluttered busyness. Director Neil Marshall (The Descent) wants to introduce too much of John’s world too quickly, in such a hurry to get to the good parts that none of it has time to sink in with any real weight. Here’s a bit from John hitting bottom at Ravenscar! Here’s another new manifestation every ten minutes! Here’s a car crash! Here’re some flashbacks about Newcastle, instead of saving it for a good while like the comics did! Here’s another car crash! Here’s him in action using wand-free magic! Here’s the Helmet of Nabu as a DC Comics Easter egg, the first of thousands of such eggs to come! Here’s Dark John, because we just couldn’t wait to do that trope!
Obviously my comics collection skews my perceptions here. The original Hellblazer had its shocking moments and grotesque concepts, but it also had its subtleties and its quiet horrors. Its baddies also didn’t all feel alike. Judging by the pilot, Constantine could too easily fall into a formulaic exorcism-of-the-week rut unless they plan for demons to find other means of surfacing, or maybe pick on other evils besides just demons. Some nice ghosts or wights or incubi or soccer hooligans or whatever. (I kid less than you think. There was once a Hellblazer story with berserk soccer hooligans. Adapting it for American football fans wouldn’t take much of a rewrite.)
It’s hard for me to judge Matt Ryan’s performance as pass/fail because I imagine he’s working with what’s handed to him. He handles the snarky parts just fine (as in the interview with his psychiatrist), but they’re outnumbered by ultra-serious confrontations of grim stoicism. I wouldn’t mind if Constantine were a blank slate, but to me he’s not. As conceived by writer Alan Moore, John was a cocky, insufferable know-it-all. He was a master manipulator who made sure he was in the right place at the right time, who knew what resources he needed, who usually delegated all the paranormal tasks to others, and had no problem conning everyone into doing the necessary things, even if it meant they’d hate him after the day was saved. If he was rattled, it meant something. Ryan’s version so far hasn’t been asked to capture the confident verve or negotiate the amoral sacrifices that set John apart from his comics contemporaries. Perhaps that’s yet to come, but it’s disappointing that John’s original traits were less important to the TV people than all the other bullet points they made time for cramming into the pilot.
John’s initial charm was also partly lent by the fact that we didn’t know if he was a magician or not. Blatant magical acts were a later addition to his repertoire when future writers grew bored with the coyness. With this version, there’s no question that he’s memorized incantations and can lay down a power-circle setup without doing any Rupert Giles library research or skimming Wizard Wikipedia first.
Constantine may be one of those series that needs a few episodes for all involved to find a suitable working rhythm, especially since we already know the character of Liv was written out after the pilot and will be replaced with someone else next week. Maybe the altered chemistry will bring other edits and discoveries along with it. At first glance, though, the show looks to be headed to the same TV-adaptation discard pile as other Alan Moore comics co-creations such as Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and From Hell. (V for Vendetta arguably didn’t stray quite as far from concept to cinema.) I suspect DC Comics and Warner Brothers are uninterested in spine-chilling tales of the unexpected and keen to introduce ten more magical DC heroes so we’ll have the entire Justice League Dark ready to launch for the season finale. As if John Constantine’s series were just another super-hero IP. I guess it is now, innit?
[MCC 2014 Pilot Binge stats: Minutes passed before I wanted the show to go away: 24. For more information on the MCC 2014 Pilot Binge project, please visit the initial entry for the rationale, the official checklist of pilots, and links to completed entries as we go. Thanks for reading!]