Constantine is the much anticipated television adaptation of the Hellblazer comic book series. I will readily admit to being one of those supernatural drama fans who has never once read an issue of Hellblazer; my prior knowledge of John Constantine comes from the 2005 film Constantine and some Wikipedia research after said film came out. I was pumped for this show, as I’m a fan of horror and fantasy and quite liked the film, and I was even more excited when I saw the first images of Matt Ryan in the title role. What a hunk, and he actually looked quite a bit like the comic book pictures I’d seen. Well, the show finally premiered Friday night and it was… okay? Spoilers ahead, friends.
Open on: close-up of “RAVENSCAR (Raven Scar? Ravens Car?) Psychiatric Facility for the Mentally Deranged”. Oof. And we thought Eichen House was bad. I think we’ve had enough pop culture bad portrayals of psychiatric care and mental illness to last a lifetime. Nothing like a little electroconvulsive therapy to start a series off right! At least this ECT was requested by John himself, not enforced or imposed on him. John is seeking to run away from his past, hoping to forget all about demons after a particularly upsetting previous incident: Astra was a young girl possessed by a demon whom John tried to save. He summoned a powerful demon, Nergal, who was just supposed to drag the lesser demon out of her, but instead it killed her and took her to Hell. Later, still in the hospital, he encounters a possessed woman; he initially tries to walk away, wanting nothing more to do with the demon world. However, he ends up going back and casting the demon out, making a royal mess of the art room where he found her. The woman had left a message scrawled on the wall, “LIV DIE”, which John takes to mean he has work yet to do.
Next we turn to the Liv in question, a young woman working at a car rental place in Atlanta. When she tries to leave for the night, things get weird; lights flickering, car trying to kill her, sinkhole opening up in the parking lot kind of weird. As she’s fleeing, she runs right into John. He goes to investigate the nascent crater, and encounters Manny, an angel, who says he’s there to watch over him. Elsewhere, Liv’s neighbor who gave her a lift home after the car trouble is killed during the night, but her possessed corpse rises up in the body bag, making a rough trip for the poor medical examiner en route to the morgue. After the advice of a fortune cookie urging Liv to “Trust Him”, she seeks out John and meets his dear sidekick/chauffeur, Chas.
Turns out, John knew Liv’s father; while she thought he had died before she was born, John informs her that he in fact only died last year. John tells her that, like her father, she is capable of seeing the spiritual realm. They are then hit by a truck while Chas is driving them; though they survive the wreck, John still has to save Liv from a possessed electrical power line that ends up impaling Chas (don’t worry, he is inexplicably alive at the end of the episode). John then takes Liv to her father’s old secret hideaway, a quaint stone cottage filled with occult memorabilia (including Doctor Fate’s helmet?!). Consulting a tome, he discovers the name of the demon haunting Liv: Ferrcifer, who has electricity-related powers.
While Liv stays at HQ, John leaves and runs into Manny again, who does this cool time-stopping trick, and they two have a heated exchange. Later, John and Liv are on a building’s rooftop in the heart of the city, preparing for Ferrcifer to arrive. John has drawn a demon seal to entrap the spirit, and as Liv sits in the circle awaiting the impending attack, John reveals some of his backstory—his mother died giving birth to him, and he first began to study the occult in hopes of making contact with her. Before too much more conversation, Ferrcifer appears, having possessed the building’s security guard. Once in the circle, he takes on John’s appearance, and tries to taunt him with a false vision of Astra, which Liv is able to see through. John finishes the exorcism, sending Ferrcifer back to Hell. Later on, Liv witnesses a gruesome crime scene that makes her decide she does not want to follow in her father’s footsteps, and she leaves for California, ne’er to be seen of again. But luckily, she left John a map full of points she found while scrying. Adventures aplenty left to come! The episode ends with a teaser of a mysterious female artist who has been drawing pictures of John. The end!
Well, overall, I felt underwhelmed. Some things were good though! Matt Ryan is John Constantine. Snarky, blond (looks legit unless under fluorescent lights), and British (well, Welsh to be precise), rather than merely scowling, brunet, and American (I’m looking at you, Keanu Reeves), Matt Ryan is a more faithful translation of the comic book character. However, for the overall feel, I would say the 2005 film gets it more right. It has a dark, glossy cinematography that was hinted at in a few scenes in the TV show, but not fully captured. There were a few scenes in broad daylight with no filter that would be fine in an average supernatural show, but Hellblazer is dark. I understand it’s harder to do movie-level cinematography on a TV show, but there are some shows out there that demonstrate it’s possible to create a consistent and impressively dark atmosphere even on basic network TV; Hannibal comes to mind, and Supernatural often has an appropriate gritty and dark cinematography. Combine the best of both worlds: Matt Ryan in the title role of the 2005 film, now that woulda been glorious.
We all know that TV shows are so much more than the title characters, so let’s look at some of our side dishes. Chas, the sidekick, is the most boring character to ever grace my computer screen. Manny, angel/Magical Negro, was pretty compelling for his short screentime, but I couldn’t help to compare him to the resident angel, Gabriel, in the film, and Tilda Swinton’s performance was phenomenal. It would be hard for anyone to live up to her complete scene-stealing prowess. I thought Liv was fine, but I guess the Powers That Be thought otherwise: she was yanked from the show, the end of the episode re-written to reflect this. That article explains the reasoning pretty well, and while in the end I do agree, it’s just awkward to have a pilot with a main character we’ll never see again. Hopefully the upcoming Zed Martin, who I assume was the artist woman seen at the very end, will be a good fit—or we’ll end up with an ever-revolving cast of female characters who try and fail to find their place in the boys’ club, à la Supernatural.
Speaking of Supernatural, this brings me to my last point. Does Constantine have anything unique to bring to the table? Moody and gritty gentlemen hunting demons, entrapping them in esoteric demon seals, frustratingly confusing encounters with angels of ambiguous allegiance… starting to sound familiar. This could mean an automatic following from SPN lovers, or maybe they’ll feel it’s encroaching on their territory. The heart only has room for so many exorcists. John Constantine does have the benefit of being British, but the show is thoroughly American. The setting and side characters have all been Americanized, taking John out of his hallmark milieu. One has to wonder if maybe Constantine would have been better served as a British TV production. It would be more faithful to the comics, and be more set apart from Supernatural; and goodness knows Americans don’t have a problem consuming British pop culture media (Doctor Who, for instance).
So if you like supernatural dramas, I say give it a try. It might feel like rather familiar territory, but it’s still kitschy occult fun if that’s what you’re into. We are all disappointed at the straightwashing of John, but if you are looking for romantic liaisons of any kind, I wouldn’t hold my breath. There was certainly no chemistry with Liv, and John is so cantankerous and has such big personal issues of his own, I have a hard time seeing him having a love interest at all, at least in any traditional kind of way. Will I watch the rest of the show? I kind of have a feeling that it’s not going to last long, so it probably won’t even be that much of a commitment. But I might just look up screencaps of Matt Ryan’s sexy face instead. Let me know what you thought of the premiere!