Constantine Pilot Review (Updated)

An Obsessive Hellblazer Fan Reviews the New Adaptation

How does NBC's Constantine stack up to the original Hellblazer Series?
How does NBC’s Constantine stack up against the original Hellblazer comics?

I’ve seen the Constantine pilot months before its October 24 premiere on NBC. As someone who owns every issue of John Constantine: Hellblazer, someone who’s been following the series for twenty years, someone who took his long locks to the barbershop, pointed to the cover of a comic book and said, “This,” I think I’m the right guy to review it.

Spoilers ahead.

Pilot Summary

Laying low in Ravenscar Asylum, recovering demonologist John Constantine is trying to put the past behind him. Strapping himself in for electroshock, he’s desperate to wipe away the memory of an exorcism gone wrong. When a spirit possesses a patient, to make a mixed media mural with paint and cockroaches, John stops kidding himself. The writing’s on the wall and it’s spelt out a name.

Liv Aberdine is having car trouble. The anti-crash system is convinced there’s someone behind her vehicle. Crossing the lot, she’s nearly swallowed in a sinkhole explosion. That’s when Constantine, sidestepping the 14 hour trip from Ravenscar to Atlanta, hops out of a cab. He’s under orders by the ghost of Liv’s father to protect her, which he does by giving her his card and leaving her to walk alone.

Sliding into the sinkhole, John meets Manny, the angel of vague leading statements. Swooping down to prophesize how eventful the legions of hell will make the series, Manny tells John that he’s going to need his help in a fight, before fleeing at the sound of sirens.

Liv meets with John after a friend in her complex is murdered. Their conversation is cut short when the same friend’s reanimated corpse crashes into her office.

John teaches Liv the art of seeing dead people, with the help of her father’s magic amulet. The pair venture to her father’s hideaway (the set piece we’ll probably be seeing over the life of the series) where they find a library of enchanted objects.

Consulting an ancient text for information on electric apparitions (Benjamin Franklin harnessed lightning in 1752 so the age of the text is debatable), John realizes they’re dealing with a demon named Furcifer. Fur, as in wool, Cifer, as in Louis C-fifer (names are always tough for writers).

Manny returns to play the metatron of forced exposition, telling John he might be able to win his way out of hell with good behavior, something John was doing despite Manny’s divine intervention.

John consults Ritchie Simpson, a techie who uses buzzwords like “data-mining,” to help him hack a power grid.

Using Liv as bait, Constantine tricks Furcifer into breaching a weak protection circle, only to become vulnerable when Ritchie cuts the power. Conjuring up a manifestation of Astrid, Furcifer let’s the audience know that this is the carrot the series intends to dangle over our heads. When Astrid is revealed to be a psychic forgery, John dispatches the demon with a series of vague spiritual incantations.

Using her father’s amulet to “scry,” Liv bleeds onto a map of the United States, finding people in peril, setting up future episodes.

Channeling John Constantine through Tim Bradsteet's original cover art.
Channeling John Constantine through Tim Bradsteet’s original cover art.

WHAT WORKS:

John is Great

Fans of Hellblazer will be happy to know the show runners are drawing their inspiration from the original series, ignoring the 2005 movie, and the New 52’s take on the character. This version of John uses spells and incantations, rather than a crucifix-shaped shotgun. I don’t think we’ll have to worry about him getting kicked out of the Batmobile for smoking, or dressing up as Shazam.

In this universe, John is a Brit, Chas is an adult, John’s original sin is not a botched suicide attempt, but Astrid’s exorcism. The pilot even teases series mainstays Newcastle and the First of the Fallen.

The Constantine in the pilot I saw smoked, he never put a cigarette to his lips, but he put one out in an ash tray. This doesn’t bother me. I don’t need to see John blow smoke rings in every episode, but I’m glad they left the lung cancer plot line on the table.

I’m not one of those fan boys that demands dogmatic adherence to the source material. I don’t care if John is a bleached blond, wearing a thin tie, and tan trench coat, what I do care about is the spirit of the character, that’s what they get right here.

Matt Ryan, the man who helped redeem the Assassin’s Creed franchise (voicing Edward Kenway in Black Flag), nails the character. Smirking in the face of evil, he’s charismatic, cocksure, with a hint of cowardice. He’s an underdog with swagger, with the iconic look of Tim Bradstreet’s Hellblazer covers. Matt Ryan is everything the 2005 movie was missing.

It will be hard to imagine Guillermo Del Toro doing the rumored Justice League Dark movie with another actor.

Does NBC's new Constantine series have the bite of the original Hellblazer comics?
Does NBC’s new Constantine series have the bite of the original Hellblazer comics?

WHAT NEEDS WORK:

In addition to being an über Hellblazer fan, I also have a professional background in script analysis. I liked the pilot, but I want this series to last. These things will need work if it’s going to do that.

The Supporting Characters

The show runners got John’s character down, but everyone else feels flat. There are too many tropes filling in for the supporting cast, IOUs where characterization and compelling goals should be.

As a True Blood fan, I know Lucy Griffiths can be great on screen. Here she feels like she’s reprising Rachel Weisz’s character from the 2005 feature. Liv is a Jill-everywoman, destined to be out shined by her leading man. My fear is that the series bible just has the words “Noble, stoic,” and “headstrong” next to her character.

I want to see her take on an argumentative role, be the Agent Scully to Constantine’s Mulder.

As a Lost fan, I know Harold Perrineau has a broader range than he’s allowed to show here. Here’s to hoping the angel Manny has more dimensions than a tool for exposition. I’d love to see him visit other conjurers, hedging his bets.

Does NBC's Constantine dogmatically follow it's source material?
Does NBC’s Constantine dogmatically follow its source material?

Pacing is a Problem

Breakneck speed isn’t good when you have to rubberneck to follow the plot. Here’s to hoping the scene count goes down in future episodes. Horror needs a slower burn to reach a boiling point. The jump scares go by so fast that we shrug them off.

The pilot rushes through a series of events, but it fails to connect them. Liv is attacked by an electricity demon AND THEN she meets John Constantine who tells her she’s in danger AND THEN John investigates a sinkhole AND THEN an angel appears to tell him of the rising demon legion. Are you sensing a pattern? There are far too many AND THEN’s in place of BUTs and THEREFOREs. Future episodes need a better balance between cause and effect.

The Dialogue

Apart from Constantine’s lines, which have just the right mix of British slang and quick wit, the banter left a lot to be desired. It reminded me of watching ABC’s Elementary, Johnny Lee Miller’s Sherlock Homes is great, but the show defaults to a cheap cop drama whenever he’s not on screen.

The Blood Map

The blood map is too convenient. These dots across the US are a weaker plot device than the visions from the Powers that Be on Angel, John Winchester’s paper trail on Supernatural, and the machine on Person of Interest. The days of syndicated reruns are long gone, this is a series that needs to follow the model of serialization. The blood map sets up a standalone structure.

Does NBC's Constantine have a prayer of saving supernatural horror?
Does NBC’s Constantine have a prayer of saving supernatural horror?

The Demons

As moviegoers we’ve seen our share of white-eyed stretch-marked possession victims. Show us something this summer’s Deliver Us from Evil isn’t bringing.

The demons lacked imagination. Rather than look to the horned goat-legged etchings that every show like Sleepy Hollow draws from, I implore the show runners to check out Joel-Peter Witkin, the photographer who inspired the creatures in Jacob’s Ladder, Dave Mckean, the Sandman cover artist, or even the creature design in the Silent Hill video games. Horns and hooves are so last century, now it’s all about disfiguring abnormalities.

We measure our hero’s worth by their opposition, based on these monsters, John isn’t long for our TV screens. He needs worthy opponents, foes that play him against other demons. In the books, the denizens of hell are territorial, feuding mob families using John as an unwilling go between. Hellblazer has more in common with The Big Sleep than The Exorcist, the show runners should play with that.

John tricks demons into fleeing, playing one faction against the other. There are hints of this in the pilot, but nothing like a proper grift.

The Magic

In the comics, Constantine’s spells have a dark poetry to them, combining charms, vices, and every day house hold items.

In the pilot he shouts esoteric gibberish. Why does Constantine need to recite a greatest hits of the world’s religions? At one point he says, “By the star of David I command you?”

If the show runners are afraid to go full-Latin-exorcism, then they need to modernize John’s methods. Have him bluff his way through a spell, making up a curse using things tacked to the wall, like a warped homage to The Usual Suspects. Have him use the MacGyver method, building an emergency talisman with objects he has on hand.

Can NBC's Constantine live up to the original Hellblazer series?
Can NBC’s Constantine live up to the original Hellblazer series?

It’s Too Soft

The pilot is a PG outing. There’s no way you’ll mistake it for premium cable offerings like Penny Dreadful, True Blood, or Salem. Even by network standards, this is tepid horror. The X-Files conjured up more frightening demons. We’re told Astrid was ripped apart by Nergal, but we see him use a telekinetic tractor beam to gently tug her into a light.

Relying on the same makeup and effects we always see, the spirits are more cartoony than scary. Constantine needs to distinguish itself from shows like Grimm. The show runners should take a page from their network sibling Hannibal and go harder.

Conclusions

The pilot is worth watching, but our screens are over saturated with supernatural horror. The series needs to establish a unique identity. The mysteries should ride out longer, here John just opens a book and knows he’s dealing with Furcifer. They need to take time to develop the characters.

I’d like to write a spec script for Constantine. Drafting my own episode, I’d lower the seen count, the locations, and the effects budget. Hell, in some of the best Constantine stories, he’s just tied to a chair. I’d start there.

(Update)

I went ahead and wrote an original Constantine story called Gambling with Souls. My take on the character emphasizes his skill for con artistry in the face of evil. It’s hardcore horror with a dark sense of humor. Check it out.

Will NBC's Constantine give weaker supernatural TV shows the two finger salute?
Will NBC’s Constantine give weaker supernatural TV shows the two finger salute?

4 thoughts on “Constantine Pilot Review (Updated)”

  1. I’ve been unsure about the show since seeing the trailer. The books, for the most part, are great; well-written and dark. There are bits here and there that could’ve been tossed, but that’s my opinion (and in my opinion, the Swamp Thing is beyond lame). However, I’m glad to see that it’s closer to the comics than the movie was

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    1. The character feels right (apart from reciting a co-exist bumper sticker of an exorcism). I hope they up the ante, giving him worthier villains to test his resolve.

      Like

  2. Spot on. And yep – I’d pay to see an episode in which Constantine is tied to a chair, but manipulates his captors into catastrophe purely by suggestion, wit, threat, etc. That’s the Constantine I really enjoy.

    Like

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