The premiere episode of CONSTANTINE stumbles across the television screen rather like a loud and boisterous drunk stumbling out of a bar: it catches your attention, and you sense its charm, but half the time its incoherent ramblings make no sense. “Non Est Asylum” (“there is no asylum”) also betrays evidence of being a busted pilot that was rejiggered at the last minute when series producers Daniel Cerone and David S. Goyer decided to move the series in a different direction. As unsatisfying as the episode is, it is not likely to hook audiences, but it does show enough promise to interest sympathetic viewers in checking out another episode or two.
The story begins in media res, with John Constantine (Matt Ryan) cooling his heels in a mental asylum, recuperating from the fallout of a failed exorcism, which resulted in not only the death but also apparently the eternal damnation of an innocent girl. Fortunately, some paranormal activity inspires Constantine to leave the asylum (apparently, he just checks himself out – which has the benefit of keeping the narrative going but somewhat undermines the grimy semblance of “reality” that the series affects). An angel named Manny (Harold Perrinuea) shows up to inform Constantine that there is a “Rising Darkness” on the horizon – some kind of apocalyptic threat requires Constantine to get off the sidelines and back into the game. Though unconvinced of his role in the larger war, Constantine tracks down Liv Aberdine, the daughter of an old friend, out of a sense of personal obligation – because she is being tormented by a demon. After Constantine introduces Liv to his compatriot Chas Chandler (Charles Halford), Liv demonstrates an aptitude for “scrying” – that is, marking a map with drops of blood that reveal where supernatural activity will take place. Constantine eventually identifies the demon haunting Liv: Furcifer, who has an affinity for electricity. Constantine lures Furcifer into a trap while another old associate hacks the city’s grid, turning off all electricity, thus draining the demon’s power. Opting out of demon-hunting as a career move, Liv bids adieu to Constantine and Chas, but leaves behind her scrying map.
“Non Est Asylum” establishes the tone and style of the CONSTANTINE series. Angels and demons are real, battling for the souls of individuals and for the fate of all mankind. But this archetypal fairy-tale is presented in recognizably human terms, seen through the cynical eyes of its titular character, someone who has been there and done that, many times, and would probably rather be enjoying an evening at the pub instead of hunting evil entities.
Matt Ryan makes the show work. His John Constantine is a wonderful fantasy variation on hard-boiled characters like Philip Marlowe – the cynical, boozy exterior hiding a tired and slightly tarnished knight on the inside, one who knows the score and ins’t happy about it – but, despite his griping, will do what is necessary to set things right.
Unfortunately, the supporting cast does not fare so well, giving performances that are functional in roles that are defined mostly in terms of skills rather than personality. Liv has the ability to scry; Chas can survive apparent death. In both cases, the abilities are more interesting than the characters possessing them, and neither actor is up to the task of fleshing out the thin writing. The jury is still out on Perrineau’s angelic Manny: his strangely pointed stare and affectless body language could be an evocation of his character’s otherworldly nature, or simply a symptom of underacting.
Also, there are several absurdities in “Non Es Asylum,” which are apparent even to viewers who are not cantankerous critics. To begin with, the opening narrative gambit is a bit odd: instead of being introduced to television audiences unfamiliar with the comic, Constantine is presented as a known identity, so we never question his sanity and wonder why he even bothers talking to a psychiatrist trying to convince him that demons are unreal. In fact, the first sequence feels as if it belongs at the beginning of a second-season opener, following upon the heels of a devastating season one cliffhanger.
Liv is introduced in a spectacular special effects scene involving a city street splitting open to reveal belching flames, after which Constantine appears to offer help. Shortly thereafter, Liv is seen returning home, telling a friend how creeped out she was by the appearance of this stranger – who apparently made such an impression that she forgot the fires of hell erupting through the pavement. (The notion that this hell hole remains open is simply glossed over; later we learn the Liv has psychic visions, so we just have to assume that the conflagration took place only in her mind.)
Best of all, Constantine’s method of dispatching Furcifer requires the complete blackout of an entire city’s electrical supply. We’re supposed to cheer the clever plan, and the special effects showing Atlanta plunging into darkness are mean to be of the “ain’t it cool!” variety, but the script seems rather blissfully indifferent to the thought of hospital life support systems and airport control towers suddenly off-line and the inevitable loss of life that would result.
This silliness might be acceptable in a tongue-in-cheek romp, but CONSTANTINE affects a serious tone, in which the threat of eternal damnation weighs heavily on its title character, who suffers pangs of regret over the fatality that resulted from his previous failure. Here’s a hint, John: if you feel bad because your demon-hunting got one innocent killed, avoid plans that are likely to kill hundreds, even thousands.
Liv’s presence is awkwardly interpolated. As a newcomer to Constantine’s world of magic and the dark arts, she should act as the audience identification figure – our eyes and ears. But since we see Constantine first, this function for Liv is short-circuited; instead, the episode seems to be about bringing her into the fold. Then, having gone to all the trouble of introducing her, the episode summarily dismisses Liv at the end. Apparently, Liv was intended to be a regular character, but scenes were reshot to dispatch her so that a different character could take her place in subsequent episodes: “Non Es Asylum” ends with a woman, face unseen, cranking out drawings of John Constantine, apparently inspired by psychic visions; we meet her in the next episode, “The Darkness Beneath.”
Liv leaves behind her scrying map, which is pockmarked with a multitude of blood-spots, indicating that enormity of the Rising Darkness that is to come. Though the Rising Darkness becomes the show’s continuing story arc, Liv’s map will actually have little impact on future episodes.
CONSTANTINE: “Non Est Asylum.” Air date: 10/24/2014. Written by Daniel Cerone. Directed by Neil Marshal. Cast: Matt Ryan, Charles Halford, Harold Perrineau, Lucy Griffiths, Jeremy Davies.
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.