Constantine is really good at giving off an earthy stench for a show that operates politely within the boundaries of standards and practices. Matt Ryan’s exorcist has seen it all and wishes he hadn’t. He’s wry as can be but could stand to be funnier. He doesn’t smoke, but he has a lighter that comes in handy. He doesn’t hop into bed with anyone in the pilot, either, and apparently he won’t be hopping into bed with any men at all, but that’s a producer thing. Ryan’s John Constantine wouldn’t bat an eye.
Constantine is first of all a welcome corrective to Francis Lawrence’s mid-2000s stylish, symmetry-fetishizing film adaptation starring Keanu Reeves. The movie has an eye but no ear, and it’s just precious enough to be smirked out of the room by the hero of DC’s Hellblazer. The TV adaptation, developed by Daniel Cerone and David S. Goyer (Battlestar Galactica vet Mark Verheiden is the third executive producer), values fun over pretty. Constantine’s even English, thank god. Enough bad American accents are doomed to wander American television as it is. TV’s Constantine isn’t likely to get as gloriously filthy as Hellblazer, but as with the lighter in John’s pocket, it winks in that direction. After a cockroach stampede leads John to his first demonic encounter of the series, he successfully exorcises a friend painting a message for him at Ravenscar Asylum. When she comes to, she’s upset to find herself covered in red splatter. “Don’t worry, love,” he says. “It’s just paint.” Constantine is a master of suggestion.
The problem with suggestion is slipperiness. It’s easy to wriggle out of problems when you don’t really lay out the rules. It’s almost silly how simple it is to exorcise the demon hunting Liv Aberdine (Lucy Griffiths) through the first episode, “Non Est Asylum.” John and Liv lure him to the middle of a bespoke rune circle, cut power to the city by way of a good hacker (the new “God/magic did it”), and say some spells. That said, magic isn’t science. It’s not just about saying the words or mixing the right potions. It’s a battle of wills. Low bar, I know, but John Constantine pointing his hand at some demon and struggling mightily is at least as interesting as watching a bead of light go back and forth in the wand-stream between Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort.
The movie gets one up on the TV show in the soul department, however. In the movie, John Constantine is condemned to Hell because he committed suicide as a teenager. In the show, John’s condemned because he conjured a powerful demon to kill another demon possessing a little girl named Astra, and instead, John’s demon killed Astra too. So instead of suicide, Jon’s sin is indirectly damning someone else to Hell? “Non Est Asylum” is generally nimble with the backstory, giving just enough without it capsizing the episode. So there’s more to come with Astra, but that just adds to my point. John’s condemnation in the TV show is more convoluted than it really needs to be, comic canon or not.
The final sin of slipperiness is a production problem, but it’s glaring nonetheless. “Non Est Asylum” is essentially the story of Liv discovering the world of demons and angels, the world her father worked with John to keep in order. She even inherits a magical family heirloom, no, a secret cottage full of magical family heirlooms. She learns she’s a scry, a person with the special ability to track where evil is about to express itself. She plays bait for the demon of the week, Furcifer, and helps John banish it back to Hell. This is the story of how Liv teams up with John to battle demons.
And then, after surviving a sinkhole/fireball combo, the murder of her neighbor and emergency contact, and multiple demon encounters, a random murder scene scares Liv off to her cousin’s house in California. (Sunnydale, I hope.) Apparently producers wanted to go another way with the story, which is all well and good—Lucy Griffiths is easily the weak link in the cast—but it hollows out a significant chunk of this set-up. The patchwork could not stick out more. Liv returns the magical pendant, even though it’s hers, so America’s Next Top Liv can use it instead. She even did some handy scrying before she left, leaving John with a map of the United States speckled in evil. And John prepares to cast some spell to keep her safe in her off-screen world, so we don’t have to worry about any more demons chasing her. All the functionality of the Liv character with none of the cost! Thanks, Liv!
If that sounds like a lot of problems, that’s because Constantine crams a lot in. It’s the best network drama pilot of the season. That’s not saying much when you’re comparing John Constantine’s bullshit to the Scorpion team’s bullshit, but in a good year for comic adaptations, Constantine balances the heavy mood of Gotham with the heavy plotting of The Flash. Matt Ryan’s better with the quips the writers are, although the angry melodrama could use some fine-tuning. I don’t have a read on Harold Perrineau’s Manny, an angel sent to watch over John, or Charles Halford’s Chas, John’s immortal (or at least immortal-ish) best friend, but I’m looking forward to spending more time with them. Jeremy Davies is playing the Jeremy Davies character, a twitchy, twangy metaphysics professor and the aforementioned hacker, Ritchie Simpson. Bear McCreary (Battlestar Galactica, Outlander) gives good score. All the magic stuff is a blast, the cookie with a blank fortune, the ghost train, the mirror into the past. I can hardly believe how much stuff—haunting, exposition, set-up—is packed into this episode without it feeling busy, shaggy, or lost.
Directed by Neil Marshall, “Non Est Asylum” sets the stage for a genuinely spooky piece of work, not in the existential Hannibal way, but in a more diverting, pulpy way. Take the scene in the ambulance: a corpse inside a body bag flopping around like crazy, the lighting cutting out and replaced after a long darkness by the paramedic’s flashlight, the beam finally making its way from the sedate body bag to the possessed corpse of Liv’s friend in the corner. As soon as we see her, we cut even closer on her and then away. Any more screen time and she might not be so scary. The episode is full of that eeriness: the Black Christmas stalker-eye-view outside Liv’s apartment, the slithering demon camerawork flowing through the hall, the screaming of the paramedic during a montage of screaming graffiti faces colored by rotating police lights. If Constantine can keep up this balance of fun and spooky without Neil Marshall, I’ll be in heaven.
- “Non Est Asylum” is Latin for “there is no asylum.”
- I don’t know if we’re staying in Atlanta or traveling the country, but I loved that nocturnal cityscape. Atlanta never looks so modern on-screen.
- Spookiest moment? Tough to decide between the girl in the van and Liv’s Nana. She’s quietly combing her daughter’s hair, and then Liv notices her, and she responds by turning white with hollow eye sockets and screeching black liquid out of her mouth.
- “People can sense what’s on the way,” Manny says. “What’s on the way?” asks John. Apparently the hellmouth is opening. Demons are more overt than usual. They must be planning Something Big.
- Look, it’s 2014. If your car senses something, revs on you, and shuts down just before a sinkhole appears and a fireball erupts, you stay with the dark arts master who gave you his business card. I just want y’all to be prepared.
- Liv: “Why would anybody want me dead? I’m a nobody.” John: “I hate to burst your bubble, love, but you’re not a nobody.” Except for the purposes of this TV show, that is.
- Well, answer the man. Which band is more influential, The Ramones or The Sex Pistols?
- The voice-over is bad because it’s ad-copy voice-over, not grimy, putrid detective voice-over. I’d love it if the writers dirtied it up, though.
- In the end, there’s an artist in a room festooned with John Constantine art. That should be Zed, our Liv replacement. To be continued!