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.