‘Constantine’ is the third new TV series of the season (on as many networks) based on a DC Comics property. The character had previously been featured in a 2004 movie of the same title starring Keanu Reeves, which was not well received by fans of the original ‘Hellblazer’ comic. The new show sidesteps that and starts over with a depiction closer to the comic character, but does that alone make it better?
The first things to know here are that the TV version of Constantine (played by Matt Ryan) is British, blonde, and has a bitterly sarcastic tongue. Because this is a major network show, he’s not allowed to smoke, but he regularly toys with a lighter to let us know that he used to. (It’s also handy for lighting things on fire – though he can apparently also do that with his hands, which goes unexplained in this episode.) The main action of the series takes place in Atlanta, for reasons that have nothing to do with the comic and a lot to do with favorable tax incentives from the state of Georgia to the production company.
The pilot episode, called ‘Non Est Asylum’, rushes us through the basic premise with some dashes of backstory. John Constantine is a man with the power to see and battle demons. He considers this a curse, and as we first meet him, has voluntarily confined himself to a mental asylum called Ravenscar (yeah, that’s not ominous at all) for electroshock therapy. He also claims that he’s been damned to hell for a past incident involving a 9-year-old girl. If I understand it correctly, he allowed the girl to be sacrificed in order to stop a demon. When another demon comes calling for him at the asylum to deliver the message “Liv Die,” Constantine realizes that it’s time to stop dicking around and get back to work.
All things considered, despite all this doom and gloom, Constantine seems less tormented than simply resigned to the fact that he’s screwed. He constantly makes light of this situation. He’s not a priest or even a particularly religious guy, and takes a very pragmatic approach toward performing an exorcism. It’s just a job he has to do. He shows up, says the right Latin incantation, and the demon goes away.
Constantine jets over to Atlanta to find and protect a girl named Liv (hence the “Liv Die”) who’s being hunted by something nasty and invisible. Liv turns out to be the daughter of a former (now deceased) colleague of Constantine’s. Daddy left her a magic pendant that gives her the power to see souls and to predict where future supernatural events will occur. Constantine sets a trap for her demon on a building rooftop and expels it in a giant column of fire shooting toward the sky, which I’m sure no one else in the city happened to notice.
The episode spends a lot of time setting up Liv to be an important player in the story and a sidekick for the hero, but then suddenly writes her out at the end when another character delivers some awkward dialogue explaining that she decided to go to California instead. Constantine shrugs his shoulders and says, “I work better alone,” and that’s apparently the last we’ll hear of Liv.
The pilot was written by ‘Dark Knight’ scribe David S. Goyer and directed by Neil Marshall (who has helmed some of the most action-y episodes of ‘Game of Thrones’). Harold Perrineau from ‘Lost’ appears as an angel named Manny who shows up periodically to taunt Constantine. Jeremy Davies plays a computer hacking pal, and Constantine also has a cab driver buddy named Chas who ferries him around town – and apparently can’t be killed.
The series seems to have an interesting mythology, and I like the character’s irreverent attitude. In theory, the show should make a good pairing with NBC’s ‘Grimm’ on Friday nights. That said, the first episode is a jumpy mess and suffers the obvious effects of last-minute rescripting and reshooting. I can hope that future episodes will settle down a bit and forge a more coherent path. If that doesn’t happen quickly, I’m not sure how long this will last.