Enough has been said about NBC’s recent adaptation of the popular Hellblazer character and the questionable decision to portray him on screen as anything but a relentless chain-smoker. Will this arguably significant omission be indicative of a diminished version of the character? Will NBC continue the show’s development along a pattern of a reluctance to take risks? After we saw the Constantine pilot screening at New York Comic Con a few weeks ago, we have to admit that all ley lines point to yes, old son.
However, let’s not begin under the assumption that they’ve produced an un-watchable or unrecognizable version of John Constantine. Welsh actor Matt Ryan (who we know and love best as the voice of pirate Edward Kenway in Assassin’s Creed IV) does a fine job portraying the Liverpudlian master magician. He is a scruffy smart-ass that manages to briefly shine in some of the more complex aspects of Constantine, such as his selfish sense of self preservation and his almost involuntary compulsion to rescue little girls while damning his closest friends (a plot line that many fans of the early runs of Hellblazer are familiar with). It’s safe to say that the pilot, in these respects, proved much better than the abysmal Keanu Reeves-helmed take on the franchise.
Where the show struggles is in its writing and plotting. For example and speaking of saving young girls, the pilot’s incarnation of the same rehashed Hellblazer story comes in the form of budding seer Liv (a well-acted Lucy Griffiths) who acts as the audience surrogate and probes her protector for his magical knowledge. As John is so naturally an asshole, he teases and doles out as little information as necessary until it suits him to grace others with his expertise. Not only is Liv’s reduction to a technique lazy and unoriginal writing, their dynamic is sort of confusing and frustrating given that she is supposed to be our conduit to the occult. This disconnect is especially noticeable to those who have read the comic and know how expertly and deftly John’s world can be described through the character’s own narration.
Perhaps more worrisome than the cancer-free ethics of Constantine (which of course sentences some of the most popular Hellbazer arcs to limbo) what we find more portentous of unexciting things to come is the setting of the series in modern day America since a lot of the themes and tones of the early Hellblazer issues were driven explicitly by Thatcher’s England. We’ve discussed de-contextualizing fantasy before and similar attempts always seem to warp what is intrinsic and defining in the source material. When you have the character down but not the setting, you’re probably only telling a fraction of the story. It’s also fair to admit that the first episode does not always represent the future direction of a show. However, the pilot goes as far to set up the rest of the season by showing us a map of America with bloody demarcated hot zones of paranormal activity for John to solve, probably episodically. It’s not even reaching to predict that the show will amount to little more than “Supernatural Starring John Constantine“ because, with an unintentionally amusing irony, John will even tour through the best of Americana in an iconic car with his best pal by his side. The only prediction that we can make to separate the two is that John would definitely be battling hell while listening to the Sex Pistols instead of Kansas (honestly, that bit works for us).
While airing shows like Hannibal, which has a mastery in gore and grotesque, it was surprising (in spite of the ominous anti-smoking announcements) that NBC delivered such a safe pilot. The episode did have some good scares reminiscent of the first season of some other show that I’ve already mentioned and some neat Easter eggs and nods to the DC Universe that I won’t spoil here but got the crowd at NYCC ready to feint. These semi-redeemable moments and the casting of Harold Perrineau as a guardian angel means I’ll be checking back for future episodes if only to catch an appearance of Swamp Thing, though the future of Constantine looks unremarkable at best.
Constantine premiers tonight and airs Fridays on NBC