Photo: Tina Rowden / NBC

Pros And Constantine

Is the demon-fighting drama finding its cloven hooves?

I had high expectations for Constantine -- probably too high, given that I know the comic-book version of the character mostly by reputation. I knew enough not to tune in to NBC expecting biting social commentary on Thatcher's England, or scenes of gory horror, which are both things that helped make DC Comics' John Constantine: Hellblazer what it was. The question was, what was going to replace them? Judging by the pilot, unfortunately, it didn't look like it was going to be all that much. A few spooky moments and a flashback to a demon abduction that was less haunting than the ones in Ghost didn't seem to be cutting it.

The next couple of episodes weren't terribly inspiring either, leaving me somewhat hard-pressed to come up with something to write about besides, say, John's outfit. But last week's episode, "Feast of Friends," was the best one yet, by far. The show and the character went to a pretty dark place, as Constantine deliberately manipulated an old friend into sacrificing himself to a demon. Sure, Constantine offered to draw straws to undergo that nightmare himself. But it wasn't a sincere offer, and even if it had been, we all know Constantine wouldn't have made it a fair draw. So that's one factor that made it across from the comics: John Constantine is a very dangerous guy to know. Like, Fox Mulder dangerous.

Also encouraging is the fact that the show is getting less shy about the gross-out moments. The third episode splattered human guts across the inside of a studio window not once but twice, and last week's drug-trip scene gave a new and squickily literal meaning to the expression "see it through my eyes." If the show can keep getting away with making us wince once in a while, that's only to the good.

It's also become clear what the TV version is bringing to the table. There was never going to be any getting around relocating Constantine to the U.S. for an American TV series, so I'm fine with that. Especially because this production makes the best of it by giving Constantine a national to-do list in the form of a blood-spattered map sending him to trouble spots, like a sort of supernatural GPS. The other thing I like is the "Rising Darkness" theme that seemed like so much vague lip service in the pilot, but is starting to show some actual consequences as magic starts to behave in increasingly unpredictable ways. Despite his defining failure at the exorcism in Newcastle (and some less defining but still rather embarrassing ones since), Constantine is a man of many skills, and it would have been a lot more boring to watch him slap down Monsters Of The Week all the time. This way we get to see him challenged and in over his bed-head, learning the new rules along with us, but without the tedium of a drawn-out origin story. So that works.

Leading man Matt Ryan is growing on me, too. Dude's got Royal Shakespeare Company experience, but it's been gratifying to see that his performance is evolving into something less stagey as he learns that playing "haunted" on the small screen calls for more than "unshaven." And while Angelica Celaya's performance is so uneven and awkward that I'm not sure what she's even trying to do half the time, I am enjoying the character of Zed as she learns the ropes of being Constantine's sidekick, a gig well suited to her preexisting talents. She is certainly a step up from the poor man's Kristen Stewart that Constantine was saddled with in the pilot. Now, if Celaya can just learn to change her facial expressions with more fluidity than Colorforms™, I'll be totally on board.

There's also Constantine's loyal muscle Chas, apparently a deserter from a taxi company, but that guy's a bit of a blank slate. That's also a squickily literal expression in this case, as this week he again demonstrates his ability to rapidly recover from mortal wounds that then vanish from his flesh. I'm looking forward to seeing that explained (most likely to Zed, the way everything else is), almost as much as I'm looking forward to his having more to do than provide basic transportation and serve as a human Etch-a-Sketch.

Constantine is being pulled in a lot of directions at once: faithfulness to source material versus the need for new fans; horror versus prime-time standards and practices; the urgency of finding its ratings versus the need to tell the story at a properly deliberate Gothic pace; explaining and world-building versus the need to keep things moving; darkness versus humor. But that's not its only problem; what's worse is that it never seems to make it look easy.

But it's starting to focus more on what it does well. For instance, what worked best this week were the scenes between Constantine and his opposite number, Papa Midnite. We learned a lot about both of them based on how they see each other; not only in terms of their differing motivations and similarly dark pasts, but through Midnite's specialization in voudun as opposed to Constantine's grab-bag, whatever-works-for-this-situation approach. Every hero needs a villain, and most of those heroes are going to end up in a temporary and uneasy alliance with their villains at some point or another, but not usually in the fifth episode.

I would also like this show to remember that the first three letters in Constantine's name are not without significance. He claims to be a master of the dark arts, but there's more to that than drawing sigils and declaiming incantations. What, after all, is a darker art than manipulating and tricking people -- and the occasional demon -- into doing what he wants them to do? The original Constantine relied more on skills than spells to get his way. Maybe the TV show is going in the opposite direction in order to bust out more special effects in such a visual medium. But comics are pretty visual too, you know?

And maybe if this Constantine were more of a con man, he'd be less gullible. He appears to take everything he's told at face value. He'd know better than I what kind of signs to look for that might indicate that Manny might not be what he seems, so I'll give him a pass on that. But in the second episode, he bought a suspect's unconvincing alibi so quickly it was as if he'd been shopping for it (it turned out to be true, but still). And at the end of this week's show, Papa Midnite warns that Constantine will be betrayed by someone close to him. Unwelcome Christ parallels aside, it doesn't seem to occur to John that his arch-nemesis might have reasons of his own to want to break up the team. Of course, it's too early to tell whether that's a failure of imagination on the part of the show or on the part of the character, but it's not too early to tell which I would find more disappointing.

Constantine is somehow trying to do too much and too little at the same time, seems overly impressed with its own not-that-impressive cleverness, and would undoubtedly work better as a limited-run cable or even BBC series than an open-ended network joint. But there's starting to be reason to believe that of all those different directions it's being pulled in, it's going to start settling on the right ones. All my bitching aside, that reason is simple enough: after five episodes, I'm starting to be interested in what's going to happen next. Sometimes that's enough.

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