Months ahead of its NBC premiere on 24 October, I preview the pilot episode of supernatural comic-book horror drama CONSTANTINE...
What's the background?
- CONSTANTINE is a US TV adaptation of the comic-book anti-hero created by Alan Moore (Watchmen), Steve Bissette (Swamp Thing) and John Totleben (Miracleman)—an occult detective, magician, and con man called John Constantine. This NBC supernatural drama, inspired by the 1980s run of Hellblazer comics, is executive produced by Daniel Cerone (Dexter) and David Goyer (Batman Begins), the latter of whom wrote the pilot, which was directed by Britain's own Neil Marshall (The Descent).
- English occultist John Constantine (Matt Ryan) quits his attempt to forget his supernatural past (undergoing shock therapy in a creepy English asylum), when he's forced back into action after a demon targets a rental car saleswoman called Liv Aberdine (Lucy Griffiths); the American daughter of his old friend Jasper, who's inherited her father's ability to see the spectral dimension.
- This new iteration of Constantine still isn't a Scouser from Liverpool, but Welsh actor Matt Ryan affects a northern English dialect that floats around the north-west. It's a marked improvement on Keanu Reeves's wholly American version from the 2005 movie, which was widely criticised by Hellblazer fans upon release. Ryan brings a lot of swagger and confidence to the role, plus a nice line in sardonic quips that befits the character off the page. He's also blonde and has the right coloured coat, if those details are deal-breakers for you.
- Harold Perrineau (Lost) made a good impression as a sphinx-like angel called Manny, utilised as Constantine's personal contact to "the other side". (Although I prefer the androgynous approach favoured by the film, which cast Tilda Swinton as Archangel Gabriel. Imagine if they'd hired Gwendoline Christie if she wasn't busy with Game of Thrones!) The guest star appearance of Jeremy Davies (Justified) was also fun, although he's sadly typecast as twitchy oddballs.
- I've liked Lucy Griffiths in other things (Robin Hood, Collision, True Blood), but she wasn't very good at Liv Aberdine. At times her delivery of lines was downright awful. Maybe having to put on an American accent was the issue (aka 'the Michelle Ryan Problem'), or she simply couldn't get a grip on such a generic, dull character. Liv felt like a none-entity throughout the story (just someone to protect who had an unusual talent), and my hope for a fun double-act with Constantine lasted about five minutes after their first meeting. It made me realise just how brilliantly Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie work together on Sleepy Hollow; and if Ryan/Griffiths were supposed to echo that Fox show's dynamic duo they have utterly failed. I was hoping Constantine would ditch Liv after this adventure together, but her paranormal ability to locate future trouble using divination makes her this show's version of Cordelia from Angel.
- You're unlikely to get a hardcore version of Constantine on mainstream US television (despite the anomaly known as Hannibal), so it was no surprise to see Constantine wasn't as downbeat or frightening as the comics or even the 2005 movie. There were a few effective jolts here and there (like that shot of Liv's dead granny puking up black "goo"), but the overall tone reminded me of Supernatural. It could have been a lot worse, but there's no denying the fact the best adaptation of the source material would have deserved a home on cable. This is a show where the reason for Constantine's soul being damned to Hell no longer revolves around his suicide (but allowing a cute kid's soul to be taken), and the famous chain-smoker doesn't even light up once.
- By the end of this pilot, the stage is set for John Constantine to have hundreds more adventures across America with his (immortal, underwritten) cabbie friend Chas (Charles Halford), directed around by Liv's weird-finding pendant. Constantine may even learn how to tighten up a neck-tie, too.
- I'm guessing the people who devour Supernatural, Charmed, Angel, Bedlam, Hex, and Sleepy Hollow. In other words, big and silly paranormal mystery shows with an emphasis on smart alec duos and fizzy special effects.
- Anyone who holds the Hellblazer comics in high regard; because, while Constantine's got his accent and some of his attitude back, he still isn't working from home. I'm not sure if this show will tackle political and social issues through a supernatural prism (the '80s comics took swings at Thatcherism, punk rock, terrorism, the economy), or just give NBC viewers a parade of monsters and possessed crazies for hunky Constantine to exorcise with ancient runes and Latin incantations.
- It's truer to the comics than the movie (if not as cool-looking), I'm pleased they cast a Brit in the lead, and the production was good, but Constantine's pilot suffered from an overuse of effects-driven set-pieces without enough good character interplay to make you care about anything. These are problems that can be overcome quickly with good writing that starts working toward each actor's strengths, but I didn't get a feeling there's anything special about Constantine itself to keep me coming back. It was very formulaic in its basic plotting, show mythology, and world-building.
- NBC in the US from 24 October. No UK broadcaster has bought it yet, but it's only a matter of time. I predict Sky Living will swoop, which perhaps summarises my feelings better than the above.