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Should You Become A Constant Viewer Of Constantine?

Another comic-book property hits the small screen, but how hard?

What Is This Thing?

A one-hour supernatural/horror drama revolving around freelance occultist John Constantine. Like everyone on else on TV, he's battling some demons, but the demons he's battling are literal. Those hoping for a show about former American Idol contestant Constantine Maroulis will be disappointed.

When Is It On?

Fridays at 10 PM on NBC.

Why Was It Made Now?

There seems to be plenty of room on TV for supernatural mysteries right now, what with shows like Grimm, Sleepy Hollow, and, uh, Supernatural. In a way, John Constantine is the granddaddy of them all, given that he's been solving supernatural mysteries in DC Comics for a generation now. And he's also the kind of tortured white male antihero that everyone is so into right now. Plus studios love comics adaptations, so this covers all the bases. Furthermore, Marvel is kind of eating DC's lunch right now in the multiplexes, so maybe DC feels it necessary to open a front in primetime against Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Good on them for not calling it DC's Constantine.

What's Its Pedigree?

Well, how far back do you want to go? The character John Constantine first appeared in Swamp Thing comics in 1985, when it was being written by Watchmen author Alan Moore. Constantine eventually got his own title, Hellblazer, which enjoyed a 25-year, 300-issue run from 1988 to 2013, and he's still on stands now, both in Constantine and as a younger version of himself in Justice League Dark. You may also remember an ill-advised, ill-received 2005 movie of the same title starring Keanu Reeves as the blond, British John Constantine, but let's hope the new show is more like the comic than the film, shall we?

One of the executive producers is David S. Goyer, the screenwriter of the Dark Knight trilogy and Man Of Steel, so he knows from transferring stories from the panel to the screen. The other is Daniel Cerone, who brings his backgrounds in demon-fighting, conscience-wrestling, and smart-ass blond detectives from his experience in producing Charmed, Dexter, and The Mentalist, respectively.
The voice of lead actor Matt Ryan will be familiar to anyone who has played Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, while his face will be familiar to fans of Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior, with the latter probably being a rather smaller group. He is also Welsh, and not Keanu Reeves.

By the way, don't expect any superhero cameos in this DC joint. The show's tone and budget aside, Hellblazer generally took place in a separate universe from the likes of Superman and Batman, and the new series wisely signals this by sending Constantine to Atlanta instead of Peachtree City or something.

...And?

Dude's a mess, okay? We learn almost right away that Constantine is carting around an awful lot of guilt. It seems that an exorcism he was performing on a little girl named Astra went pear-shaped, and she ended up dragged to Hell for an eternal time-out as a result of Constantine's hubris. He figures this makes him a damned man walking, but an encounter with an angel named Manny (Harold Perrineau, sporting creepy gold contact lenses and an attendant aversion to blinking) gives him hope that he just might have a chance to make up for it. And it looks like that chance will take the form of doing what he already does best, which is facing down fiends and protecting the innocent. A demonic tale of ongoing karmic renovation? Think Angel meets My Name Is Earl. This could be dark, creepy fun.

...But?

Eh, it's kind of not, so far. Hellblazer was pretty groundbreaking fare in its day, but after decades of that ground being trod by so many of the other shows mentioned earlier in this piece, this version is going to have to step it up if it wants to do more than coast on name recognition. Matt Ryan certainly looks the part (which is to say, Sting circa 1985), although the most convincing moments of his performance are when he's bellowing in Latin. The show's overall execution is merely workmanlike, with stagey staging, dialogue that never quite gets off the ground, and actors occasionally cranking the knob all the way up to 3.

At the same time, it often feels rushed. Goyer (who co-wrote the pilot with Cerone) is used to having the better part of three hours to spread out his grand dark epics, so there's just too much crammed in here. The pacing is too fast in moments that call for a slow build. The "investigation" Constantine conducts is wholly unworthy of the name; he simply heaves open a massive grimoire and points to the one legible word printed within, which happens to be the name of the demon he's up against. And was the pilot really the place for us to learn that Constantine grew up with his father blaming him for his mother's fatal childbirth, and that little Johnny taught himself the dark arts in hopes of finding her immortal soul? How much tragic backstory is too much for the first episode? Answer: that much.

Worse, Constantine has a crippling existential problem, which is that it's on broadcast television. For starters, that means John Constantine is now a nonsmoker, which is bad enough. But it gets worse. The pilot -- or at least the advance screener of it -- includes a flashback to that allegedly horrible moment when Constantine failed to prevent the demon from claiming little Astra. Which is unwise, because the scene plays like a Lifetime Original Movie in which one of the actors showed up in a horned monster suit. Now, it is a horror truism that you can't show the viewers anything worse than they can imagine themselves, but on NBC you can't show the viewers anything worse than what they've already seen on TLC, let alone on The Walking Dead or True Detective. There's just no way this show is ever going to be as dark and twisted as its source material. I did enjoy a few of the creepier moments, like a demonic eye peering out of a laptop (full-screen mode!) and the contents of a zipped-up body bag thrashing furiously in the back of the coroner's van. But the reason those moments worked was because they were part of the story, whereas too many other images (Constantine standing in the rain all haunted-like, Constantine standing unflinching in the middle of the road as a car screeches to a halt inches from his knees) were just there to make a cool tableau. Yes, comics and television are both visual media, but they're storytelling media too. And a horror series that you can pick up with rabbit ears will have to live and die on its storytelling. Stephen King has famously said that if he can't scare his readers, he'll go for the gross-out, but that's not an option here.

Of course, the other way to go is the Buffy route, i.e. throwing in a heaping helping of black comedy. And sadly, I think they're actually trying. Constantine's client accuses him of deflecting situations with humor, which isn't fair because he isn't particularly funny. I actually found the last five minutes of Man Of Steel fairly witty, and left the theater wishing there had been more of that throughout the movie. Now I wish there were more of it in Constantine. This wisecracking detective needs wiser cracks. One can only imagine the wonders a Joss Whedon could have worked with this script, because if he did, Marvel would do a lot worse to him than that demon did to Astra.

...So?

It seems harsh to judge any show on a shaky pilot, especially one with origins as venerable as this one has. There's plenty of space for improvement, so I'm going to give it time for improvement as well. And maybe so I can enjoy another straight-faced howler of a line like "John taught me to scry today."

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