Starring: Matt Ryan, Angélica Celaya, Charles Halford & Harold Perrineau.
Original channel: NBC.
When I sat down to watch the first season of NBC’s Constantine I wasn’t hopeful. After 2005’s rubbish film of the same name, that featured Keanu Reeves playing a watered down and source-betraying version of comic books’ luckiest magician and most bastard con man, I didn’t think a TV show would fair much better. After all, you only need to read DC’s the New 52 comics, such as Justice League Dark, to see how the company are trying to turn John into an anti-hero, leaving the worst (but also best) parts of his Hellblazer-era personality behind him.
I didn’t think Constantine would even attempt, let alone succeed, in capturing the Hellblazer-era John Constantine I’ve been a fan of for as long as I can remember. Luckily I was proven wrong on both counts. Whilst it is far from the perfect show, Constantine captures a large part of John’s original character, including the essence of his tortured soul. The TV show references and uses events and characters from the original Hellblazer graphic novels throughout Season 1’s initial 13 episode run too, which is sure to please fans like me hoping to see the world of Hellblazer captured on-screen. The TV show still portrays John more as an anti-hero than a self-serving con man, unfortunately, but at least his underlying motive is true to form; as ever John is driven by the purely self-serving goal of avoiding Hell.
Matt Ryan stars as the Welsh accented Liverpudlian John Constantine. This “well travelled” (hence the accent, apparently) Englishman starts the season in a mental hospital, after accidentally damning a little girl’s soul to Hell in a magic experiment gone wrong in Newcastle. John has checked himself in to the hospital in order to avoid both his inner-demons and the actual ones running riot on the mortal plane. Unsurprisingly, John quickly gets called back into the world of magic by a rising force of darkness that manages to capture his attention. Joined by old friend Chas (Charles Halford), an angel called Manny (Harold Perrineau), and the mysterious Zed (Angélica Celaya), John sets out to stop the rising darkness in an attempt to redeem himself and divert the course of his Hell-bound soul.
I have no intention of giving you an episode by episode run through of the first season here. Instead I’m focusing on the show’s characters, its use of the source material, and its meta-story elements, in order to tell you why, despite some issues, you should watch Season 1 of Constantine if you’re a Hellblazer fan, and why there should be a Season 2.
Firstly then, the man himself. Matt Ryan’s John Constantine is, of course, the star of the show and in many ways this is a fairly true-to-source representation of the Hellblazer character. He certainly looks the part thanks to the brown trench coat, loose tie and abundance of cigarettes. Ryan also displays plenty of John’s characteristic attitude, such as his lack of authority towards higher-beings (sorry Manny), and his willingness to sacrifice others to benefit himself. Matt Ryan does play John very well, full of arrogance, overconfidence, and yet with a clear child-like fear of his fate. John’s heroic nature is over-played for the TV show though, and his magical knowledge seems much more comprehensive than it did in the early Hellblazer novels (which is more akin to the New 52’s Constantine, actually), but overall it still works. The toning down of John’s con man personality and other, less desirable cut-throat traits, is somewhat inevitable for any on-screen representation of the character, although I do feel there is room to take John to darker places in future seasons. There’s no doubt after Season 1 that Matt Ryan is capable of doing this with the character, and Constantine is far from being as brutal as The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, so far. As versions of John Constantine go though, there’s no denying that Matt Ryan’s is a good one.
Chas, however, sees a major overhaul in Constantine when compared to his Hellblazer origins. Now an American, Chas is blessed (or cursed) with the ability to die and come back to life, although this gift does have a finite limit. It’s all a bit Doctor Who in that respect, but it does serve to allow the show to add some inconsequential danger and violence directed towards the leading cast. It’s just a bit too convenient though, a criticism levied too easily at Constantine’s plot devices, and it’s a shame that it takes over half a season for Chas to get some significant character development which will actually make you care about him and his multiple deaths. If there’s any character that feels really departed from their Hellblazer origins, it’s Chas, and it doesn’t work as well as you might hope.
John and Chas are also joined by Zed, a woman on the run from her father, whose psychic abilities are used to help John locate and stop the rising darkness. The idea of a sidekick having visions is clearly lifted straight from Joss Whedon’s Angel, but it helps keep the story moving forward to the next evil outburst. Luckily Zed is a strong, independent and formidable female character, which adds a welcome dynamic layer to the rest of the mostly male-oriented relationships in the show.
Manny is the shows other recurring main character. This guardian angel has been sent to guide John in defeating the rising darkness, but he is bound by divine power not to directly interfere (unless he’s made to by someone who flaunts the rules; here’s looking at you John!) Like Chas’ deaths and Zed’s visions, Manny adds an all-too-convenient story crutch, easily moving things forward and resolving seemingly impossible or hopeless challenges through his divine power. There is, however, more to Manny than meets the eye, which means he’s likely to serve a greater purpose in any future seasons.
It’s lucky that by the end of Season 1 you’ve come to like Chas and Zed, and are intrigued by Manny, because otherwise it would be easy to dismiss these characters as holding the show back thanks to their abilities, which combined are able to solve any situation without John needing to lift a cigarette-stained finger. Fortunately David S. Goyer and Daniel Cerone know how to write good characters, which prevents this from being the case, and Ryan’s John Constantine is a consistently solid and well-performed presence in each episode.
The TV show also features a large supporting cast from the Hellblazer and DC comics, alongside some familiar and fan-pleasing themes. Prepare for Gary Lester, Ann Marie Flynn, a House of Mystery, Doctor Fate’s helmet, the brilliantly portrayed voodoo magician Papa Midnite, and Jim Corrigan (who, if you don’t know your DC Comics characters, is the human host for the Spirit of Vengeance, the Spectre). All these supporting characters and ideas help the TV show rise above criticisms about the overly convenient powers of the cast, whilst hinting at a bigger universe still to be explored. DC and Hellblazer fans will get a kick out of seeing characters and stories that they know in the TV show, and whilst these elements don’t always mirror the books exactly, the handling is well within a reasonable artistic licence and always done infinitely better than in the Constantine film.
There are some key meta-stories ongoing throughout Season 1, but not many of them are resolved by the end of Episode 13. The rising darkness is the main plot thread, but this feels like a story that’s only just beginning. The mystery of Chas’ death-defying abilities is the only plot-element that really gets resolved in Season 1, with the true origin of Zed’s visions, the real nature of Zed’s relationship with her father, Jim Corrigan’s ultimate fate, and Manny’s real goal all left outstanding when the season wraps. No single episode is especially outstanding though, which is perhaps Constantine’s biggest problem when fighting for a second season renewal. Perhaps if one or more of these dangling threads had been brought closer to a conclusion there would be less debate about the renewal of a second season, as there would have been a bit more interest generated organically throughout the first season. As it stands though Season 1 feels like it contains 13 mostly separate episodes, with only the last 30 seconds of the final episode really trying to tantalise viewers into wanting more and hinting at a bigger story bubbling beneath the surface. All the episodes are good enough in their own right mind you, but none of them ever really shine. The best one is probably Episode 3, which features a demonic vinyl, and an excellent introduction to Papa Midnite.
I don’t watch a lot of TV. In fact I mostly hate television, but yet Constantine had me intrigued and I kept coming back for more. The characters in the show are interesting and there are clearly some big ideas brewing for future seasons. I just hope the relatively average nature of the individual episodes of Season 1 doesn’t hold the show back. Matt Ryan’s Constantine is a version of the character I can rally behind, and there is a lot of content in this TV adaptation that Hellblazer fans will enjoy. It may not be a perfect adaptation, but Constantine represents a decent effort at making the content of this often brutal graphic novel TV-friendly, whilst still remaining fairly true to the source material. And there’s a wealth of this source material that can be drawn upon to take this show further, darker and to ramp up the tension in Season 2, if it gets commissioned.
Here’s hoping the dark arts bring another season of Constantine when the decision about renewal is made in May. This TV show has interesting characters, a decent main story, and plenty of great material to draw upon. It just hasn’t found its feet in creating great individual episodes yet, but I felt the same way about Season 1 of The Walking Dead and Arrow, and look where they are now!
Season 1 of Constantine is a TV show where the sum of the parts far outweighs the individual parts themselves, then. But one thing is certain; this as close as we’re likely to get to an on-screen version of Hellblazer, and so for that reason alone John deserves a second chance.
Images from www.nbc.com/constantine