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Television is in a strange place these days. The entire way we watch television has shifted, with traditional barometers of success like ratings and traditional show structures—why do monster/villain-of-the-week when people really don’t want to watch the same thing over and over again on Netflix?—have changed drastically.
Into this foray steps Constantine, which, over its recent, 13-episode first season on NBC, has mostly succeeded at standing out, largely thanks to the exceptional, charismatic performance of its lead, Matt Ryan. Not only does he look the part of asshole con-man magus John Constantine, he acts it, and his every moment is riveting. Unfortunately, that leaves a bit of a vacuum in the supporting cast. But for the most part, the show rises above it. While it has pacing issues, Constantine balances that with well-done plotting, direction, and effects work. While it doesn’t best the heights of Hannibal, it’s certainly more riveting than Grimm.
Based on the decades-spanning Vertigo comic Hellblazer, the plot sees Constantine checking himself out of Ravenscar Psychiatric Hospital—where he’d checked himself in after horribly botching an exorcism and damning a young girl and his own soul to Hell —after he witnesses a demon-possessed woman writing the message “Liv Die” on the wall. He heads to Atlanta to meet Liv Aberdine (Lucy Griffiths), the daughter of his old, dead friend Jasper Winters. After giving her a family pendant that unleashes her second sight (enabling her to see demons) and introducing her to the art of scrying, his best mate Chas (Charles Halford), and her father’s rural safe house full of magical protections and devices, Constantine tracks down the demon tracking Liv and sends it back to Hell.
John also deals with the angel Manny (Harold Perrineau), who tells him that something he obliquely calls “the Rising Darkness” is presently weakening the boundaries between heaven and earth, and hints that if John fights it, his soul will be redeemed. When Liv, freaked out by all that she’s seen, leaves, John winds up going to Pennsylvania to track down demonic disturbances in a mine. There, he meets Zed Martin (Angélica Celaya), a mysterious woman who sketches her psychic visions constantly. Together, they and Chas deal with an assortments of demons, ne’er-do-well occultists, and voodoo shaman Papa Midnite (Michael James Shaw), all while trying to learn more about the “Rising Darkness.”
Although a lot of the show’s tone and atmosphere is reminiscent of Hellblazer (one of the greatest horror comics of all time and one that doesn’t get nearly enough praise), with the fourth episode basically being a shot-for-shot adaptation of the first issue, this show is more in line with a rebranding of John Constantine done some years ago. When DC Comics (of which Vertigo is an imprint) rebooted its entire publishing universe in 2011, Hellblazer was cancelled and Constantine was launched, replacing what was basically an HBO show with more of a network one, putting John square in the NYC of the DC Universe and rubbing shoulders with Superman, Batman, and every other Justice Leaguer.
Due to an edict by DC Entertainment and Warner Bros that none of their TV or film properties be connected in any way (save for The Flash, a spinoff of Arrow), that sort of thing won’t happen in this show. However, Constantine does get to play around in the thick and often underutilized supernatural corner of the DCU, which it obviously revels in. Characters like evil magician Felix Faust (Mark Margolis) and cop Jim Corrigan (Emmett J. Scanlan), whose later role as the Spectre—God’s wrathful Spirit of Vengeance— are hinted at in flashes.
As I said above, Ryan is key to the whole enterprise, to the point where the show flags slightly whenever he’s not around. He nails the look and the feel of John, making this magic-wielding bastard one to root for. But his friends and enemies are neat too. Showrunners Daniel Cerone and David S. Goyer (more on them in a bit) wrote Liv out of the series after the pilot as she was simply too reactive to be interesting. Doing that and bringing in Zed—a British psychic in the comics; now Hispanic-American—was a smart choice. Having someone already acquainted with the magical world helps, and Celaya has enough wit and enthusiasm to keep up with Ryan. Halford as the similarly reimagined Chas (originally a married Londoner, now a divorced, functionally immortal American) offers similar ballast. He’s sadly not in every episode or rather talkative, but he is a welcome presence and I hope there’s more of him on screen.
Of the villains, it’s Papa Midnite (one of Constantine’s oldest foes) who makes the strongest impression. Part of this is due to the fact that Midnite, although based in New Orleans, manages to get out from the Southern spook shadow cast by True Detective and comes across as wholly original. Another part of that is due to Shaw, who gives an entrancing, exciting performance. Although only in one episode, Margolis—best known as Tio from Breaking Bad—makes Faust speak volumes, and I hope they find a way to bring him back for subsequent seasons.
Cerone (best known for Dexter) has a history with seemingly unlikable leads and he shepherds a talented cast, excellent directors and a crack writer’s room (including Farscape creator Rockne S. O’Bannon) to make something a cut above your average cop procedural. That this show is such a thing despite the problematic presence of co-showrunner David S. Goyer, who, despite a career writing comic book movies and even helping relaunch Justice Society of America back in the ‘90s, has made several public statements that indicate he knows very little about the medium he pulls from (he infamously derided Martian Manhunter as a character best known by virgins and the proudly feminist She-Hulk as simply a love interest for her cousin the Hulk)—is a welcome thing indeed.
As enjoyable and fun as this show is, it’s had its stumbling blocks. In particular, it frequently goes the “monster-of-the-week” route when, given the season’s truncated run and the advent of binge-watching, it really should be more serialized. Also, in a reoccurrence of the problems that plagued Supernatural in its early seasons, some threats that are relatively minor are treated with the same import. And again, the series’ energy lags a bit whenever Ryan is offscreen.
Those issues aside, Constantine is a highly enjoyable show and very much deserves more episodes. At the time of this writing, rumors of it possibly moving to NBC sibling Syfy and renaming itself Hellblazer have been discredited and Cerone has said publically that while the show isn’t cancelled, he and Goyer cannot formally pitch a new season to the network until May. Hopefully, they’ll be given the green light and we'll get to see Constantine be his balmy, bastard self for years to come.
Tom Speelman blogs at tomtificate and is a staff writer and reviewer for Another Castle and a contributor to Sequart. He’s currently writing a book on Star Trek and rants about that, comics, anime, cartoons, Transformers, and such like @tomtificate on Twitter.
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