If you’re not getting enough televised horror from your cable and streaming outlets (THE WALKING DEAD, PENNY DREADFUL, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, AMERICAN HORROR STORY, SALEM, etc), broadcast network NBC has something for you: following GRIMM on Friday nights, CONSTANTINE is an adaptation of DC’s Hellblazer comic series, starring Matt Ryan as John Constantine – a scruffy Irish scrapper who dabbles in the dark arts, rescuing victims from malicious supernatural entities and perhaps rescuing mankind as a whole (though this remains to be seen).
Midway through the show’s initial slate of thirteen episodes (no more have been ordered, though the show may yet be renewed for a second season), CONSTANTINE has established itself as engaging and reasonably entertaining, if uneven and frequently confused about its direction. Its strength lies primarily in the basic premise and the conception of its titular character, a world and somewhat cynical man, possibly damned, whose skills have made him a somewhat reluctant warrior in a battle against Evil – a battle that may save his soul not only from eternal damnation but also from the personal guilt he feels over a past failure.
From episode to episode, regardless of the strength of the stories, Ryan inhabits the role as if he were born to play it. His John Constantine walks a fine line – just enough cynicism to give the character a believable edge, just enough hint of empathy to humanize him without dulling that edge. His performance has been more than enough to hold attention while the show finds its legs, which have been a bit wobbly so far – partly because of producer uncertainty, partly because of network interference.
To date, we have seen a major supporting character introduced, dispatched, and replaced, leaving behind a plot device (a map indicating future confrontations) that figures into the stories so infinitesimally that it could easily be discarded. We have also seen some fiddling around with episode air dates, resulting in minor but regrettable continuity problems.
The only continuing story arc is the “Rising Darkness” – a suggestion that weekly phenomenon are part of build-up toward some kind of apocalyptic confrontation. So far, this idea has seen little development, coming across more like a lip-service attempt to suggest a connection between otherwise disparate story lines. It does not help that, since this is the first season, we have no baseline comparison to make between Constantine’s past opponents and his current foes – who, we have to accept on faith, are suddenly much stronger than expected.
There are a few hints that the arc is heading somewhere, including a bombshell prediction at the end of Episode 5. Unfortunately, because NBC aired at least one episode out of order (Episode 6, the Halloween-themed “Rage of Caliban,” was clearly supposed to air the month before its November 28 debut), the development seems erratic; the show seems to be treading water when Constantine causally mentions the Rising Darkness at the end of the episode, without any of the concern one would expect in light of previous events.
We have to give the producers credit for trying to craft a show that stands or falls on the strength of its individual episodes. Unlike shows (such as THE WALKING DEAD) that adopt the soap opera format to hook audiences into tuning in each week to see what happens next, regardless of whether what happened before actually warrants a further look, CONSTANTINE’s stories are largely self-contained. Though not all have been compelling, “A Feast of Friends” (Episode 4, November 14) and “Danse Vaudou” (Episode 5, November 21) have proven that CONSTANTINE has can at least occasionally reach its full potential.
CONSTANTINE is not squeamish about about delivering its weekly quotient of horror. The computer-generated special effects are nicely done, and the impact is surprisingly powerful, even visceral, for a network show. (Ironically, the character’s chain-smoking is far more circumspect, and his bi-sexuality is so far completely submerged.) We also rather enjoy the way the show’s archetypal battle of Good vs. Evil plays out in relatively human terms, lending a sort of streetwise credibility to the otherwise incredible events.
The supporting cast and guest stars have yet to make a memorable impression, except for Michael James Shaw as Papa Midnight (a voudoun priest who is alternately an antagonist and an ally to Constantine) and Emmett J. Scanlan as police detective Jim Corrigan (who all DC fans know is destined to become The Spectre, should the show last long enough).
Overall, we get the impression that CONSTANTINE is attempting something along the lines of what has been seen in PENNY DREADFUL, pitting highly flawed and tormented human characters against demons both literal and personal. It has to be said that the writing seldom if ever reaches the heights achieved by John August in the Showtime series. We should also note that, although fans may be pleased by the television show’s more faithful depiction of the comic character, the movie version of CONSTANTINE (2005) with Keanu Reeves was actually more effective screen version of the material. Still, once one wipes these comparisons from the slate, CONSTANTINE is good enough to survive on its own terms, and we hope to see it return next season.