I’ve wanted to see a John Constantine TV series for years. Being a huge fan of the now sadly finished Hellblazer comic, I felt that the character could translate very well to TV. What I’d blissfully imagined is the BBC buying the rights and making a series of feature-length episodes in the manner of Sherlock (a character who bares many similarities) or Wallander. In doing so they could adapt the best stories from the series’ rich three-decade history, without time constraints or content restrictions. While I doubted this would ever happen, I later got my wish of a Constantine TV series announcement, but inevitably it’s happening on American network TV. It’s much harder to get excited about an NCB Constantine series, my imagination could only conjure a sanitized, Americanized procedural supernatural detective show (of course we’ve already seen one take on that with the misjudged Keanu Reeves movie from 2005).
So let’s start with some good news; Constantine is much better than I’d feared it might be. One of my primary concerns needn’t have been; they have not made him an American. This might sound unimportant to some but to me the roots of his character, opinions, and sense of humour all relate to his Englishness, it’s no co-incidence that nearly every writer who worked on Hellblazer was British.
Episode one begins in Ravenscar Asylum, a name familiar to any Hellblazer fans. He’s there after a botched exorcism resulted in the soul of a 9-year-old girl being damned to hell. Immediately this pleasingly demonstrates that adapters David S. Goyer (Batman Begins, Dark City) and Daniel Cerone (Dexter) have some respect to the source material. The infamous Newcastle incident dates back to the very beginnings of the character when he was still supporting in Swamp Thing, before being told fully in Hellblazer #11. There are references to the incident throughout the episode and it looks likely to become an important future plot point.
The reasons for his leaving the asylum (a whole other story entirely) are understandably brushed aside and the story soon jumps to Atlanta. So while they haven’t made him and American, it appears as though the series will all take place in the US which is a real shame if totally unsurprising. There’s no real information given in this episode as to whether (or how) John’s living in Atlanta but I guess that could come later.
There are several issues any writer will have in adapting Hellblazer for US TV, one being that the comic doesn’t really have any regular supporting cast, save for John’s long-suffering ‘best mate’ Chas, who makes an appearance here. Chas is American now (driving a yellow cab), and initially looks to suffer a most undeserving fate, being swiftly killed off after maybe one line of dialogue, however he appears to be gifted with supernatural survival powers of some sort. Actor Charles Halford communicates Chas’ demeanor effectively in his brief scenes and he’s one of the shows better supporting players.
The newly invented characters fare less well. The primary plot involves Constantine trying to protect Liv Aberdine (Lucy Griffiths), the daughter of a deceased friend of his who’s being pursued by a demon. Liv basically is acting as a surrogate for the uninitiated audience, continually asking ‘what’s going on?’ and ‘what are you talking about?’ type questions. I’ve since learned that her character – clearly intended as a co-lead here – has subsequently been written out of the show. That honestly sounds like a good idea as there’s really nothing to her. The other co-star is an angel played by Harold Perrineau (Oz), who’s been sent to watch over John by momentarily taking over other people’s bodies. I can see more potential for his character but there’s not a great deal for him to do in this episode.
As for John himself, he hasn’t been completely neutered by the restrictions of NBC, his mannerisms are mostly intact and he’s able to use a few more British-specific curse words (like in the early issues). In general he’s more of a do-gooder than his original incarnation, his actions toward Liv always seem kind, and the only real hint of his inner bastardry comes when he threatens to blackmail an old colleague of his (Jeremy Davis). I’m not too bothered by the fact that he doesn’t smoke here, his chain-smoking suited the essential selfishness of his character but there are other ways to communicate this. Overall I’m moderately impressed with Matt Ryan’s portrayal, and he definitely looks the part. I’ve only seen him in forgettable crime comedy Flypaper before but this demonstrates a lot more ability from him, and it could be a star-making role in the vein of Dr House if he and the writing staff get it right.
While not specified, this looks to be a younger John Constantine that we’re used to (Ryan is 33). Transposing the series forward a few decades, and shifting it to Atlanta is going to fundamentally alter John’s past. There’s no chance of the Thatcher-era politics the series was originally rooted in, nor John’s past dabbles in seventies punk rock. There is actually a scene towards the end with him discussing punk bands that feels very amateurish in its writing, though might make more sense coming from someone born in the eighties.
One thing it looks like we won’t need to worry about are Constantine’s special effects. This has a decent budget and is professionally put-together by director Neil Marshall (The Descent, Game of Thrones). Marshall gets in a good number of traditional scares and a few more striking visuals, such as when the angel makes time stop during heavy rain, along with a few flashy larger-scale set-pieces.
I don’t review many TV pilots as I find it quite tricky to judge a show based on just one chapter. I feel I’ve been repeatedly saying how things in this episode could be good in the future. Who knows? It could turn out like the current DC universe comic, that I liked the first issue of but quickly tired of and dropped.
Bar the introductory asylum scene the structure of this episode is fairly simple; John learns about a demon, goes after it, finds it, and does battle with it. It’s an effective and entertaining introduction. There’s plenty of exposition but enough references for existing fans to appreciate too.
What I hope this show doesn’t do is simply become a ‘monster of the week’ type procedural. There’s a long history of stories to draw from, and while you can generally start reading Hellblazer whenever a new writer takes over without much prior knowledge, the character was never just ‘reset’. Unlike many long running comics characters, John aged in real time, and old events often came back to haunt him.
What I hope it does do is be unafraid to make multi-episode arcs, and take John off on his own adventures without the need to always have regular supporting characters shoe-horned in for contractual purposes. You can do your own thing modernising a character while still retaining the most important elements if older stories, again Sherlock is a prime example of this. I’m not asking for slavish devotion, and I’d welcome completely new stories, but I hope it doesn’t just become a formulaic ‘occult detective’ show.
There’s a lot of promise in this pilot, it’s not perfect by any means but solid enough that I’ll definitely be tuning in for episode two.