[This is a review of the Constantine premiere - there will be SPOILERS.]
As hooded vigilantes prowl the streets of The CW and Detective Jim Gordon faces a rising tide of ridiculous crimes in Gotham City, NBC is dipping into the spookier side of DC comics with Constantine, a new supernatural TV show based on the long-running Hellblazer series. Things seemed to already be off to a good start when showrunners Daniel Cerone and David S. Goyer cast a genuine blond Englishman (well, a Welshman with dyed hair - close enough) in the lead role, but last night's pilot episode was the first real test of what this show could do.
As with many pilots, that's exactly what this felt like: a proof of concept. Lucy Griffiths, who plays scryer Liv Aberdine, was originally intended to be the female lead for the full series and much of this episode (everything apart from the hastily rewritten ending) is dedicated to setting her up as such. For John Constantine, that means a trip to Atlanta, Georgia, to settle a debt with an old friend. The friend in question is dead, but in John's line of work that doesn't mean he's off the hook.
Cerone and Goyer seem to have found a solid lead in Matt Ryan, who manages to sell terms of endearment like "squire" and "chief" convincingly and has plenty of rough-edged charm. While he doesn't seem to have settled into the role quite yet, Ryan has enough charisma to pull off Constantine's con man act if he puts that smile to good use. It's just a shame that NBC's policies put major limits on John's proximity to cigarettes - a major character prop from the comics - and he has to settle for playing around with a lighter instead.
Ryan even wears a trench coat well, though the trench coat itself looks far too squeaky clean and starched, to the point that it wouldn't be surprising to see the tags still hanging off it. Hopefully he'll get some opportunities to get it a bit messy over the rest of the first season.
One of the things that really drags this pilot down is the writers' determination to get as much backstory out of the way as possible, and to do so in the most heavy-handed way conceivable. This means that there's lots of clunky dialogue, such as a scene at Ravenscar Psychiatric Facility where John's doctor conveniently narrates the events that landed him in there, as though he's worried that John might have forgotten them. It also means that Liv's primary function in the episode is asking John questions. Lots and lots of questions.
Some of the exposition seems like a necessary evil. The disastrous failed exorcism in Newcastle is a vital turning point of John's life in the comic books and the highlights are retold in flashback form while John is temporarily knocked out after a car crash. Other details, like John's musings on the death of his mother during childbirth and the subsequent less-than-ideal home environment with his father, seemed more like an unnecessary attempt to establish a motivation for his involvement in the dark arts. It's also pretty out of character for someone so naturally guarded to reveal something that personal to someone he barely knows, particularly after Liv had just pointed out how guarded he is.
At least it's not entirely a one-sided relationship. John also helps Liv to learn a lot about her own history, but he does so in such a way that they end up having a weirdly Hagrid/Harry Potter-esque relationship. In fact, it's a shame that their first meeting didn't begin with John stepping out of a cab and saying, "Yer a psychic, Liv."
The writing in this pilot isn't awful, but neither is it particularly great. At best it can be described as serviceable, filing away all the necessary character and world-building paperwork that the rest of the series will be built upon, but the writers don't manage to spin this into much more than the chore that it is. The central plot - in which a demon called Furcifer targets Liv because of her scrying abilities - is equally serviceable, but since Furcifer doesn't show up in a form that can actually talk until the end of the episode (at which point he spouts the usual generic demon talk), he's not exactly memorable.
Major supporting characters introduced include Chas Chandler, John's best friend from the comic books, and the showrunners seem to have put an interesting and creative spin on the fact that Chas is one of the only people who has managed to be close to John for a long time without dying, by making him apparently immortal. He also seems to be less of a (no offence, Chas) wet blanket in the TV show, though it's hard to tell since one of his new character traits is not talking very much.
Lost star Harold Perrineau plays an angel called Manny, another original character created for the series whose primary job description is exposition, though in Manny's case he's tasked with foreshadowing the dark days ahead rather than recounting the dark days gone by. Perrineau makes the best of the dialogue that he's given and exudes a pleasantly unnerving sense of enjoying panic and chaos a lot more than an angel really should.
Given the often gruesome nature of the source material, total squeamishness in the pilot would have been a major turn-off. There's an enjoyably horrible car crash in which a possessed corpse's head ends up at a painful angle and poor Chas gets speared through the chest by an electrical cable, but while this is a good start it doesn't exactly push the R rating very hard. This might be the same network that plays host to Hannibal, but right now Constantine feels like a show that's oriented towards teenagers who are staying up late.
Despite this aggressively mediocre beginning there's plenty of room of Constantine to grow, and there are already the seeds of potential for a highly watchable supernatural horror series along the lines of Supernatural. The show is desperately in need of a personal character and tone to define it as something other than just another cookie-cutter fantasy series, and it also needs some vastly better writing. With a bit of love it could be the Hellblazer adaptation that everyone's been waiting for, but right now it's more of a petty dabbler than a masterpiece.
Constantine airs Friday nights at 10/9c on NBC. Check out a preview for the next episode, "The Darkness Beneath", below: