Gordon Ramsay In Limbo: Comics Alliance Reviews The ‘Constantine’ Television Pilot
Matt Wilson got to review The Flash, because he’s the in-house Arrow guy. Chris Sims got to review Gotham, because he’s the in-house Batman guy. And I got to review Constantine, because I’m… the British guy? But I’m not going to let profiling stand in the way of a fair and honest assessment of Man Of Steel writer David S. Goyer’s adaptation of Vertigo’s former flagship comic book series Hellblazer. This I swear.
Goyer actually shares producer and writer credits on the series with former Dexter writer Daniel Cerrone, but it’s inevitably Goyer’s presence that draws my attention. Goyer is a capable screenwriter, but his inclination towards grimy pessimism and moral abdication keeps him out of my “favourite writers” scrapbook. [Editor's note: given the subject matter, we will permit British spellings in this piece.]
Goyer is also the creator of the Starz show Da Vinci’s Demons, which took the probably gay Leonardo Da Vinci and made him a lady’s man with a smattering of bisexuality (“We don’t want to throw it in gratuitously,” said Goyer of the character’s man-lovin’ ways), so it’s no surprise that Goyer has also distanced his leading man on Constantine from his established bisexuality, arguing that it’s a marginal feature because it was established “12 years into the character’s history,” and implying that he and Cerrone might get around to it eventually.
For the record, Constantine’s bisexuality was established in 1992, which was only eight years into the character’s history and only four years into his solo series, so it’s been part of the character for 22 years. More to the point, bisexuality is not something that incubates in a person until symptoms start to show. The character is either bisexual — and written that way — or he’s not. But if Goyer is nervous about “gratuitous” bisexuality in his work and wants to hold to the attitudes of the mid-1980s, that gives us some idea of the courage he brings to his work.
Now here’s the good news. Constantine is not modelled on the disappointing 2005 Keanu Reeves movie, also called Constantine. Nor is it an adaptation of DC Comics’ current superhero comic book, also also called Constantine, set in the rebooted New 52 DC Universe. The TV show very clearly goes back to the source material, the 1980s DC/later-Vertigo comic series Hellblazer, written initially by Jamie Delano and based on the character John Constantine created by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, and John Ridgway in the pages of Swamp Thing. The leading man looks just as he does in the comics, with his familiar trench coat and tie, and he acts broadly the same way too. Just as crucially, his back story draws heavily from Delano’s Hellblazer run. This Constantine is riddled with guilt and fearful for his soul because he failed to save a girl named Astra in Newcastle from the demon Nergal.
This means that the the TV adaptation of the comic is actually more faithful to the source material than the current version of the comic — but only in broad strokes. In actual execution, this TV show is not the mature affair that the Vertigo comic offered. This is not a cable television supernatural show. This is more like… a Supernatural show.
I liked Supernatural very much during its early seasons, but I acknowledge that it took a cheerily sanitized approach to horror. Constantine is perhaps even more network-friendly. It drapes itself in some of the sigil-and-white-contact-lens drag of contemporary horror cinema, but it never attempts to evoke any actual sense of horror.
The pilot opens, for example, with John Constantine receiving shock therapy at an asylum — and “asylum” is not the word we should use to describe these places today, but we’re in TV-land here, where all psychiatric institutions still have that heavy touch of Victoriana. It’s an asylum because asylums are what you get in horror. The asylum introduces us to John and his world, first with a therapy session in which John reaffirms his struggles with demons both real and metaphorical, and then in a late night cockroach-themed demon possession that lets you know how familiar and formulaic the demonic elements are going to be.
Welsh actor Matt Ryan has a hangdog insouciance that works well for the character, but he’s not yet wholly convincing in the role. Part of that may be the quality of his blonde dye-job. Part of it is certainly the wild variations in his accent, which travels around the British Isles like a circus show.
Ryan also comes across as intolerably smug much of the time, like an irritating friend-of-a-friend who always talks in references and waits for you to ask what he’s talking about so he can impress you with his book-learning. The result is a character who reads less like a swaggering con-man and more like a family-friendly Gordon Ramsay, dabbling in something apparently less far life-and-death than dinner service.
The other key character in the pilot is Liv Aberdine, played by Lucy Griffiths. Griffiths is such a porcelain-skinned English rose (playing American) that her presence doesn’t at all help sell the tone of the show. That won’t be a problem beyond the pilot, mind you, because the actor has been dropped and replaced by another character from the comics, the psychic Zed.
And knowing that the Liv will not be part of the show going forward and that comics character Zed is will be renders about 70% of this pilot redundant. The version that makes it to air will probably be significantly altered.
Extensive spoilers follow.
We first meet Liv at the car rental place where she works. A parking lot cracks open with hellfire; Liv’s neighbour dies, gets possessed, and crashes a van into Liv’s workplace; Liv gets an amulet that allows her to see the dead, including her own grandmother. I’m rushing through this because it’s Liv, and who cares?
Along the way John Constantine saves Liv’s life several times from an electricity-obsessed demon and stashes her at her late father’s safe house. It turns out John worked with her dad, and her dad shared her gifts for scrying and seeing the dead, and blah blah blah it doesn’t matter, this whole thing is set-up that will never be paid off. Showrunners, work out the broad strokes of your show before you make your pilot episode!
The most important element to come out of Liv’s story is that she finds Dr. Fate’s helmet in her dad’s safehouse, prompting John to warn, “Put it down before it puts you down.” I’m not sure if I want this to be an in-joke or not. There’s obvious appeal to this show drawing in elements of DC’s occult universe. On the other hand, DC magic and Hellblazer magic have very different tones, and characters like Dr. Fate may send the show tripping over into pantomime territory.
So what else goes on this pilot, besides Liv running from flailing power lines and staring dumbstruck at actors through Instagram filters? (This is how we know the people she’s looking at are dead.)
Well, there’s an angel. Lost’s Harold Perrineau is in the show as winged messenger Manny — possibly short for Immanuel, “God is with us”, though that isn’t an angelic name but a prophetic name for the messiah. Maybe Harold Perrnieau is the messiah?
The purpose of Manny is to reveal to us that John’s soul — damned by the loss of Astra — may yet be redeemed before he dies, if he helps out heaven. My worry is that Manny is going to be doling out missions to our hero to give the show both a formula to adhere to and perhaps a little pro-Christian cover. Then again, Manny is a bit of a dick, so pandering to the Bible Belt may not be in the game plan. That level of compromise would not be to the show’s benefit.
John’s other allies on the show include Chas the cabbie, thankfully now played by burly and taciturn Charles Halford and not world champion scrotum and notorious plagiarist Shia LaBeouf. There’s also Ritchie, a twitchy and distrustful super-hacker and Johnny Rotten fan, played by Jeremy Davies. This already feels like too many friends for John Constantine to have, but maybe Richie is cannon fodder. Chas, we learn, comes back from the dead when he’s killed, which is a good power to have around John Constantine.
After a bit more business with the electricity demon, the episode ends with John tricking Liv to use her scrying power as part of his demon-hunting squad — or rather, that’s how the pilot I watched ended. I’m going to assume the pilot that makes it to air will end differently, possibly with Liv’s gruesome death.
As you may have worked out, I was not won over by this pilot — and the fact that the showrunners are retooling the show after one episode is a good sign that they weren’t sold on it either. It’s also a bad sign that they don’t know what they’re doing.
The show needs to be a lot darker, and its version of John needs to be much more the conniving trickster. That was the central conceit of the comics that the show hopes to emulate. Constantine is a guy who tricks his way out of present danger, only to have the deals he makes come back and screw over him and everyone around him later on. That’s a convention that offers bleak commentary on man’s place in the cosmos, and this show doesn’t feel quite that nihilistic.
Based on this pilot, Constantine is really a fantasy show with Exorcist flavoring and no real horror ambition. The second episode will essentially be a second pilot, so we’ll see if they make a better stab at it there. Based on this episode alone, I wish I were watching Gotham or The Flash.