Reviewed by: Chief Couch Potato Kylie
Who: “Constantine,” which aired on NBC during the 2014-2015 season.
What: “Constantine” is based on the DC Comics property Hellblazer and features Matt Ryan as John Constantine, the title character, a British exorcist and occult detective who hunts supernatural entities.
When: The series aired from October 24, 2014, to February 13, 2015, over thirteen episodes. On May 8, 2015, NBC canceled Constantine after only one season due to poor ratings.
Where: The action is set anywhere in the world, though predominantly in the United States within the series, and anywhere with supernatural “hot spots” that hearken to Constantine via various signs and methods of foretelling.
Why: During the annual Fall TV Preview for the 2014-2015 season, CPU! Chief Kylie picked up this show for viewing, though it was canceled before I could ever get around to it, weighed down as it was by sagging ratings. When I picked it up, I said:
Based on a DC comic (“Hellblazer”), this has all the trappings of being a great Friday fright night entry, mixing elements of The Exorcist, Supernatural, and, of course, the film of the same name (which starred Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz – and wasn’t very good) and based on the same comics. I’ll probably be watching this on the internet, mostly, but it sounds like a great possibility for television, and the fantasy/horror angle is very much my cup of tea.
Unfortunately, because someone who writes about (and podcasts about) TV is perpetually behind, I prioritized it lower on my TV watch list. If I had viewed it in real time, it might not have mattered anyway because, sadly, though John Constantine remains one of my favorite DC comic characters, his development for this TV show, though better than for the Keanu Reeves vehicle, sputtered into the “too little/too late” category, despite the extremely charismatic and, really, best portrayal of him by Matt Ryan. Read on.
How – as in How Was It?
The pilot/premiere rating scale:
***** – I HAVE TO WATCH EVERYTHING. HOLY SMOKES!
**** – Well, it certainly seems intriguing. I’m going to keep watching, but I see possible pitfalls in the premise.
*** – I will give it six episodes and see what happens. There are things I like, and things I don’t. We’ll see which “things” are allowed to flourish.
** – I will give it three episodes. Chances are, I’m mainly bored, but there is some intrigue or fascination that could hold it together. No matter how unlikely.
* – Pass on this one, guys. It’s a snoozer/not funny/not interesting/not my cup of tea… there are too many options to waste time on this one.
Constantine = ***1/2 by the end of the available thirteen episodes. If I were to rate it following the pilot alone, it would have been three stars.
John Constantine (Ryan), a demon hunter and dabbling master of the occult, must struggle with his past sins while protecting the innocent from the converging supernatural threats that constantly break through to our world due to the “Rising Darkness.” Balancing his actions upon the line of good and evil, Constantine uses his skills and a supernatural scry map to journey across the nation with the intent of sending these terrors back to their own world, all for the hope of redeeming his soul from eternal torment.
I chose to press forward with viewing this series for two primary reasons. First, the character of Constantine appeared in the fourth season of Arrow, which I’m now caught up on and a big fan of, owing to CPU!’s DCTU podcast panel. Since everything is so interconnected within the Arrowverse, I like the crossover finesse that comes with this universe and the many shared appearances of the characters of its constituent shows.
Second, because of Constantine’s past appearance on Arrow, and the tease of possible future appearances, the CW made the show available on the CW Seed. Availability and efforts to get caught up on the DC Television Universe shows kept this doomed entry on the CPU! viewing list (and this viewer’s radar) despite its cancellation, and so I finally watched it before viewing the fourth season of Arrow.
Ultimately, this viewer’s perception is that Constantine’s cancellation is utterly unsurprising, but the cancellation itself is unfortunate because whatever was transpiring behind the scenes of the show, there was obvious course correcting that was starting to gain some story traction and engagement, but such course correction inevitably came too late. If the flawed and teetery pilot did not outright lose viewers, the first six episodes probably achieved that effect handily; after the first six episodes, the show got better but also fatally presumed that a loyal audience had been following the program all along, when in fact, ratings show that viewers were disappearing from an already risky Friday night time slot in droves.
So, why the low ratings and why the after life? Constantine was a complicated, unsteady mix of stuff, like a house of supernatural cards, but its foundations were good. There were aspects to the show that were really quite promising, highlighted by a predictable but tantalizing twist at the now end of series that will never see satisfactory resolution in a television medium. Unfortunately, the show was also plagued by some rather blatant problems that were never really solved. Even if the show had survived into a second season, it would not have survived much longer because a middling genre show is a lot riskier for a major network to produce than a middling sitcom or a middling one-hour procedural drama.
Below, your friendly neighborhood couch potato (i.e. me) attempts to reason through the enigma that is Constantine – what was good, what was not so good, and what really should have been abandoned from the jump. Then, per usual, I will make a recommendation – but I warn you, it’s going to be one of those unsatisfying recommendations that will probably not successfully convey a sincere recommendation to anyone.
I’m really selling it, aren’t I?
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Let me start off with some disclaimers. First, I’m a DC fan girl. While I haven’t read a ton of comic books, I have more than a passing familiarity with many members of the DC legions of heroes (or antiheroes) and villains. The Hellblazer comic premise and the character of Constantine have always been story possibilities about which I’ve wanted to read and explore, about which I’ve always been intrigued, and about which I have more than a passing knowledge, but there has never been a live action vehicle that has done the premise or the character justice. I was hoping beyond hope that this TV show would buck that trend.
Second, this genre is my genre: fantasy/horror/supernatural and so on is where it’s at for me. Supernatural, which no doubt draws much of its inspiration from this comic book property (or, so say better experts than me), remains one of my all time favorite shows, and I generally get into things that involve magic, the spooky, the divine, and the extraordinary. So, I walked in hopeful but, because I sat down to watch this program post-cancellation, with tempered hope.
Third, I watch a lot of TV. I mean, obviously. I also watch a lot of genre television. If we are talking about science fiction, fantasy, light horror, or superhero, I will probably show up to watch it. Thus, you will probably think me more lenient than the average critic. That’s fine. Still, I am trying to be fair – and to be fair, Constantine was on the struggle bus from episode one. Being on the struggle bus does not mean that it was all bad, however, and that’s the lens through which to focus your analysis of this review.
What Was Good
Matt Ryan is, by far, the best part of this program and is its most redeeming quality. The show would likely have been canceled much earlier, without additional episode order(s), if not for his dead-on, somewhat campy, but always charismatic portrayal of devil-may-care Constantine. This is the Constantine of the Hellblazer comics: he’s brash, he’s direct, he’s kind of a wanker, but he’s always sincere in his desire to save the world from forces unseen. Ryan brought a bravado to the role that was always engaging, and he was the standout performer from the offing. Unfortunately, none of the other performances matched his particular earnestness, leaving him to do literally all of the heavy lifting, from serious as a heart attack to comic relief emoting, while the rest of the ensemble tended to crowd around him woodenly.
The only other performance with any sort of likability factor belonged to Charles Halford as Chas Chandler, one of Constantine’s sidekicks. Though he served as the deadpan half of this dynamic duo and, sometimes, the straight man to Constantine’s more extravagant antics, Halford was given some dialogue and a character arc that allowed him to explore both dramatic and comedic bends. Plus, he was given an interesting backstory, where a bit of magic left him with more than the normal one life allowed to any being. He was sort of immortal as a result, coming back to life when he should otherwise be dead and allowing himself to be a shield to Constantine and his other sidekick, Zed (Angelica Celeya), in the face of supernatural dangers. Yet, he also left a life behind that involved a wife and a child, and these stories were flushed out, in some ways more than they were for the title character, giving Halford a chance to stretch his performance beyond repeated resurrections and being the bemused Constantine caretaker.
Also, the special effects were more than decent for a Friday night entry into NBC’s foundering schedule. The Peacock network has been struggling to find mainstays on most nights and has been lagging behind the other networks, apart from days airing The Voice, so it was a surprise to see that all of the magical and the spooky on this program were rendered convincingly and sometimes amazingly. This viewer particularly enjoyed the opening titles and theme music. They really set the stage and tone for the show – that is, of course, until the tone was squandered by the goings-on of the episode that followed, at least for the first six episodes that aired.
What Was Bad
In the performance category, no one felt more miscast than Harold Perrineau as the angel Manny. Now, don’t get me wrong. I have enjoyed Mr. Perrineau in nearly all other projects in which I have seen him, including Oz, Lost, and The Matrix trilogy. I am not sure if Manny’s portrayal was a conscious performance choice by the actor, the suggestion of a director, or a combination of the two. In hindsight, particularly given the series-ending twist, the choice(s) may have been geared toward adding an element of mystery to Manny, encouraging the viewer to avoid forming any set opinion about him. The problem is, the lack of back story and the inconsistency in quality of the writing and story progression (more on that in a minute) effectively created that mystery without Perrineau’s stilted line deliveries and contact-augmented stares. What is hard to articulate, perhaps, is that if Manny was supposed to be an angel or being devoid of emotion, Perrineau failed to convey that because he is an expressive actor, both in facial features and in vocal inflection. If the intent was to hide Manny’s true nature through something affected, the affected-ness distracted from his performance. It was hard to suspend disbelief and subconsciously subscribe to the idea that Perrineau was Manny, likely due to the dichotomy of wondering who Manny was coupled with a decidedly human (if clipped) portrayal that undermined the gravity and presumed formidable nature of Constantine’s alleged adviser from the heavens.
In addition, the pilot originally featured Lucy Griffiths as Liv Aberdeen, one of the mainstays from the comic mythology. Sadly, she was also incredibly out of her depth in the role, and it was recast in the form of Celeya as Zed. While she eventually won me over, the Zed character’s particular agenda, to search for the meaning behind her telepathic powers – she has visions that steer Constantine, particularly when she touches objects or visits places – was rooted, again, in a muddled character profile that was not helped by the writing or the performance. Celeya seemed more consistent and believable than Perrineau, but it was difficult to like her or to come to realize why the viewer should care about her and if that eventuality was the actress’ fault or the fault of the writing. This viewer believes that there’s blame to go around, though, ultimately, I believe she shoulders less of that burden.
What Was Ugly
Which brings me to the ugliness of the Rising Darkness that is the Constantine cancellation. A fellow podcast panelist suggested that network intervention gummed up the works here. Potentially, but I would argue, in simply how the story behaved and in the fact that publicly, the show-runners admitted to wanting to take the show in a “different direction” after the pilot, that it was not the network that failed this show in the end but the writers themselves.
The show creators and producers presumed, from the jump, for example, that anyone walking into this program knew who Constantine is: what his back story looks like, why he was hellbent on saving the world from the “Rising Darkness,” what his character quirks were. There were mentions of Constantine’s past made at strategic points throughout the series; otherwise, the show just bypassed this piece altogether. If the show-runners ever had a hope of maintaining a larger audience for the longer term, this lack of character foundation and the assumption that the average viewer entering into the series would know the source material was a grievous misstep on the part of the head writers. Not everyone knows the Hellblazer comics, and the Constantine movie starring Keanu Reeves provided no good foundation for the story either, as it was its own middling adaptation. Which means, the writers and producers were banking on the formula they originally chose, and the natural charisma of Ryan, to sell the show’s premise. This was a gamble that did not pay off. Without a solid story foundation, Ryan was simply playing a charming Liverpudlian bloke with a lot of bad habits, a censored biography, and a few magic tricks. His purpose and fit in the world – a world that was never flushed out completely in the thirteen episodes either, apart from episodic demon banishing and Zed’s vague visions – could have used some stage setting before jumping into the episodic storytelling format. While such a layout may be formulaic and by rote, it might have also steadied this rocking ship earlier than it did; without such a foundation, viewers had to buy what the show was selling on the situations in which Constantine and his cohorts found themselves more than what motivated them to be in the supernatural fighting game to begin with.
Speaking of episodic storytelling, curiously, the tone did not change from pilot to regular season. Matt Ryan’s performance did not change nor did Halford’s nor Perrineau’s. The pilot intimated at something that was more serial in nature, rooted in Constantine’s back story. Yet, with the elimination of the Liv character and the apparent retooling of the show, the plot was meted out more conservatively beginning in episode two. Sure, all of Constantine’s efforts were directed toward the defeat of the “Rising Darkness,” but this was a vague allusion, conveniently mentioned at ends of episodes, at least for the first half of the series. The episodes themselves were more centered on a “monster of the week” format, which, frankly, has been done before in this genre, ad nauseum. Supernatural, The X-Files, and several comic book inspired shows follow the same format. Telling this story in this format felt half-hearted, noncommittal, and was also unlikely to entice the long-term viewer not already invested in the source material or the story.
Of course, another course correction around episode seven belied the fact that the writers likely realized that the larger story did have to be flushed out somehow. Suddenly, the episodes seemed to be driving toward something more definite and more sinister, largely because the idea that there might be a heaven at work against the forces of hell had to be brought back into the fold somehow beyond the quixotic appearances of Manny, the grumpy guardian angel. It was around episode seven when more tidbits of the characters’ back stories were introduced and in a more purposeful manner, no doubt due to the fact that the show’s ratings survival was precariously hanging in the balance at that point. The pacing on the season, so uneven and disengaging to start, definitely lurched forward with the seventh episode, featuring a preacher with the power to heal his congregation, having obtained the feather of a fallen angel named Imogen, her wings damaged by the loss of the feather, who turns out to be something she does not seem to be. Plus, in subsequent episodes, between the nun who was once a love interest and fellow magic dabbler of Constantine’s, to an episode where the lurking evil threatens Chas’ daughter, to the riveting season finale, Constantine clearly found its groove at long last – but, by then, it was too late. A wing and a prayer and a groundswell of some loyal followers convinced the network to order thirteen episodes but no more.
Apparently, though, the show’s creators thought this new resurgence of faith was enough to guarantee season renewal. The first and only season ends on a doozy of a cliffhanger following a twist that, in hindsight, one should really see coming from episode 7. Yet, the implications of such a twist and what it might have meant for our main characters, including the less engaging ones, will never now be known. At least, not unless some network more forgiving than NBC finds a reason to give it a chance, and, as time passes, such a possibility becomes less and less likely.
Personally, I think if John Constantine can meet Oliver Queen and the Green Arrow over on the CW in a season featuring the villain Damien Dahrk, I don’t see why some resolution for the story lines of the ill-fated Constantine solo series can’t be drummed up somewhere within the Arrowverse. Unfortunately, however, said solo series was the result of some spectacular decision-making fumbles in writing and in series direction that, at least in this viewer’s perspective, pretty much guaranteed cancellation from the get-go. Perhaps, if Greg Berlanti and the folks behind Arrow and The Flash could have taken some interest in it early on, things might not have ended the way they did, but The Flash premiered in the same season as Constantine and quickly became a juggernaut mainstay for the CW, particularly since the property is more well known overall than the Hellblazer story. It’s possible that Constantine was, thereby, a victim to timing more than anything else, and though it might be tempting to blame network interference for its demise, the question becomes at which point could the network possibly have interfered in a way that doomed this series beyond what was already dooming it inherent within its presentation? With such a rocky pilot and a clear struggle to find sure footing for the stellar character work of Matt Ryan, network interference seems to this viewer to be nothing more than a scapegoat for larger problems, the biggest being a lack of focus and a cohesive vision for the show itself. Maybe the network ordered the show sight unseen pilot-wise. Maybe NBC was desperate enough to gamble on Constantine when the pilot offered little guarantee of success. Either way, it’s hard to blame the network when the creators didn’t seem to have their ducks in a row, which makes Constantine luckier than most shows of similar quality, particularly on a cancel-happy network like the Peacock.
In the end, it’s hard to recommend Constantine to anyone other than fans of DC Comics, particularly of the Hellblazer comic itself. I think longtime readers of John Constantine’s quirky antics will delight in Matt Ryan’s performance and probably be happily brought along for the ride, but anyone unfamiliar with the property, even genre fans, particularly those less forgiving than me, will be frustrated by Constantine. It doesn’t help that the show ends on a cliffhanger without resolution, especially when reaching that cliffhanger takes some work and devotion in watching episodes of considerably lesser quality in the first half of the show’s only season. If one does want to watch the show, my advice is to proceed with caution and armed with all the facts. You won’t be satisfied, but, at least, you can enjoy thirteen episodes of Ryan’s John Constantine, the cheekiest devil to get the live action comic book treatment.
THE FUTURE OF THE SHOW
Canceled! Constantine was canceled after one season by NBC, though it enjoys a streaming afterlife on the CW’s “CW Seed” platform, an app or channel for streaming devices, which carries older shows, such as the 1990s version of The Flash, old episodes of Whose Line is it Anyway?, the web series Vixen, and other gems. As above, proceed with caution if you choose to watch Constantine and enjoy it for what it is: an adaptation of uneven quality but a brilliant depiction of the title character as well as background for the character’s crossover appearances on Arrow.