Constantine: Non Est Asylum

"I'm a nasty piece of work, chief. Ask anybody."

The 2014/2015 television season will probably be remembered as the season that comic book shows took over the various platforms we now watch TV shows on.

Right now there are four series currently airing on the major networks based on comics (The Flash, Gotham, Arrow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) with more on the way. ABC has Agent Carter to fill the gap when AoS goes on hiatus. Netflix has four Marvel shows in the works, including next year's Daredevil, CBS is developing a Supergirl series, and Playstation (yes, Playstation) will bring the long gestating Powers series to the...whatever it is they will show it on. Before any of those arrive we have Constantine, an adaptation of DC's long running horror series Hellblazer. I'm a huge fan of the comic so my expectations were pretty high. Did this pilot even come close to meeting them? Yes, and no.

Like many comic book characters, Constantine hasn't had the smoothest journey from page to screen. Last time anyone adapted Hellblazer, they thought it would be a good idea to cast none other than Keanu Reeves as the distinctly British, blonde haired, chain-smoking trench coat wearing John Constantine. In all fairness, Constantine was a perfectly serviceable supernatural thriller, it just wasn't a John Constantine movie, because whoever Keanu was playing wasn't John Constantine.

John Constantine is a cynic with a sarcastic sense of humour who failed as punk rocker but never let go of the "fuck the system" attitude. He's a conman and trickster who defeats his enemies through cunning and isn't afraid to throw a friend under the bus if it ultimately serves his purpose. Keanu's Constantine was just Neo without the shades. But what that film got wrong, this series intends to get right. I say intends, it hasn't actually succeeded. Not yet anyway.

I can't find fault with the show's leading man. Matt Ryan looks the part (even if he can't smoke), and has a good handle on character. It is just too bad that he's let down by a script that overdoes the character's Englishness (there was one utterance of "bollocks" too many) and tries too hard to explain everything, not just the mythology of the series, but John himself. Things that should've been slowly revealed over time (Newcastle, his abuse at the hand of his father) are dumped on us all in one go. As a result, John is less leading man and more exposition man. The bulk of his dialogue consists of him explaining things to us.

And then there's Liv. Originally, Liv, an original character created for the show, was meant to serve as Constantine's parter, a novice to tag along with him so that there would be someone for him to explain things to. But at some point after the pilot was filmed the powers that be decided to go in a different direction and Lucy Griffiths was let go and the character of Liv written out of the show. Which makes this pilot extra frustrating since so much of it is devoted to developing a character who is gone by the end. Not that I am sorry to see Liv go. She was a terrible character and Griffiths' acting was painfully wooden.

As underwhelmed as I was by this pilot, I'm still going to give this show a chance because I love character so much and do think that, with better stories, this could make for a great show.


Patrick said...

I was actually impressed with the way they altered the pilot at the end to write the character of Liv out of the show. I'm guessing what was originally supposed to happen was that she stumbled on that crime scene that she'd scryed(scried? I dunno) earlier, realized that she could help stop things like that from happening, and decided to sign on with Our Heroes. Using it instead as what makes Liv decide to get away from it all while she's still sane works quite well. Plus it was a way for them to do it without bringing the actress back to shoot any new scenes. The way the producers were talking when they said they were writing her out so quickly, my initial guess was that they were going to kill her off early on, kinda like a certain Season 1 character from Angel. This way was also probably simpler from a contract perspective, since she didn't do any work beyond the pilot. Yeah, it's a little frustrating spending so much time in the first episode with a character who we won't end up seeing again, but the episode as a whole provides a pretty solid introduction to John Constantine's world, crafting a new one without her would've probably meant pushing the show back to mid-season at the earliest, and cost a bunch of money.

A couple of questions linger for me after this pilot:

1) Did Liv leave behind the keys to that cabin, the supernatural HQ? It'd suck if they had to lose that set because they wrote her out of the show :)

2) What the HELL is up with Chas and his ability to survive being impaled by a possessed power line? I don't remember him having any superpowers in the comics. Hopefully they won't make us wait forever to find out what's up with him.

3) Please tell me Manny's going to be doing more than standing around looking smug and giving John the Crazy Eyes. Characters like that get old fast.

Mark, I agree that this pilot was heavier on the exposition than it probably needed to be. I don't think we needed to learn the stuff about John's childhood just yet. I also think the reveal about how John got that little girl's soul condemned was handled clumsily. For most of the episode it seemed like he just failed to save her from a demon. That sucks, but it doesn't sound like something that would damn his OWN soul to hell. Once we learned that he tried to save her from one demon by summoning another, it started to make more sense. But I think they should've dropped hints earlier that while trying to save the girl he did..."something" terrible which cost the girl her soul, etc. Something to make his guilt make sense, even before we learned what that terrible something was. Heck, they probably didn't even need to reveal that he'd summoned a demon. Save that for a future episode when they're going up against someone else who's summoning one.

My gut is they felt like because John Constantine isn't as well-known a character to audiences, and because on the surface he doesn't act as sympathetic as most "heroes", they had to explain more about him up front to get people on board, both the audience and the network. That being said, I still enjoyed it quite a bit. Matt Ryan's got real potential in the role, so hopefully they can craft some good stories around him.

Billie Doux said...

Well, I know nothing about the comics (except that it's where Castiel's "look" came from) so I came to it with no expectations. And it's clear to me that they had serious pacing problems. You'd think that television producers would have seen a successful pilot or two in their time, and maybe learned from it.

I liked the lead very much, and if I keep watching, it will be because of him. But they gave him way too much exposition, as you said, Mark. They could have done a terrific pilot with an eighth of the lore that they introduced here. And them spending an entire episode introducing Liv and then writing her out in the end made it worse.

It's too bad, too, because there's potential here. Except for Harold Perrineau. He can act. They should have let him.

Terrific review, Mark. Thanks for the background, too. I didn't know all that stuff, and it helped.

Otherwyrld said...

Great review, it pretty much summed up how I felt about this episode, especially about the exposition dumping. I can see why they felt they had to do it, John Constantine is not that well-known, but as a fan of the original comics I found it annoying.

I wish they'd done a little bit more like the scene where Liv picks up an object in her fathers place, and Constantine warns her to put it down "before it puts you down". The fan boys and girls can all go "Wow, that's Dr Fate's helmet", but the non-fans are immediately aware that this is something dangerous without being told why in ridiculous detail.

I saw parts of the original pilot, and the differences were interesting, and I can see why they decided to write Liv out, but I think down the line this decision may come back to haunt them, as it weakens the story.

I will watch the series, but I have a feeling it won't last.

Billie Doux said...

Apparently Constantine did worse than Dracula in the ratings for that time slot, but better than Hannibal. I don't know what that means.

Patrick said...

Billie, I think for right now the number NBC's going to be looking at closest is Constantine's audience as a percentage of Grimm's, at least as far as the overnight ratings are concerned. There's only so much they can do to bring people to the network at 10pm on a Friday night. But if they can create a solid block with Grimm that holds a steady audience, I think it'll be a positive sign. I have no idea what sort of actual numbers NBC is looking for from their Friday shows, what with stuff like DVR Live+ ratings, online viewing, etc.

Something else to keep in mind, lots of genre shows take a little while to find their feet. We definitely saw that with Agents Of SHIELD last year(though they were partially restricted by having to time their story arc with a movie release). Grimm, Constantine's timeslot partner, took a handful of episodes before I got well & truly hooked. Even Arrow's took a few before they hit their stride. Flash has been pretty darn good right out of the gate, but those guys had plenty of practice making Arrow first :)

Billie Doux said...

Speaking of that, Patrick, why did they put Constantine in the Friday night death slot? I guess something has to go there, but it doesn't make sense for a genre show that might need help finding an audience.

Patrick said...

Billie, it may not be the ideal timeslot, but Grimm is probably the best show they could've paired it with from their schedule. Tonally they're a much better fit than Hannibal was with Grimm. NBC is advertising Grimm & Constantine together as their Friday Night block of mosters & mayhem, essentially. We'll see if it pays off. I think the report I saw said Constantine retained 97% of Grimm's audience the first night. Not a bad sign, even factoring in the comics fans who tuned in specifically for Constantine, a big chunk of the Grimm crowd stuck around. Now we'll see if they come back next time.

Mark Greig said...

I imagine NBC's expectations are low for this show. As long as it can hold onto a good chunk of Grimm's audience it should survive. I also it is a lot less expensive than a period piece like Dracula.

J.D. Balthazar said...

It looks like Constantine held onto 90% of Grimm's lead in, so the modest numbers especially going up against the World Series isn't bad at all.

mazephoenix said...

I love John Constantine, and here he was actually almost like in the comic.
Liv was very annoying, good thing she's gone.
I do love Harold Perrineau, but I hope he gets more useful things to do.
Fairly okay-ish pilot. Will stick around a little to see if it improves.
Well, I still watch Gotham so you never know.

Mark Greig said...

Saw episode 2 last night and, while I won't be reviewing it, I just want to say that it is much better than the pilot and that Zed makes a far more interesting sparring partner for John than Liv. Also, I've been informed by a reliable source that the series is only going to get better: