I’ve been holding back from talking about NBC’s Constantine because I try (I really do) to honor the effort and vision of media makers. Putting together a comic, film, or a television show is a lot of hard work and I want to respect that. And truth be told, I try to give sci fi and related genres more latitude than I should because I love them so much. Another reason why I held off for so long is that John Constantine is in my top five favorite comic book characters of the past decade or so, and I wanted to make sure I could be somewhat neutral.
We will NOT be speaking about the 2005 Keanu Reeves joint.
When I heard that NBC was going to deliver a Constantine television show, I was elated and skeptical at the same time. NBC isn’t exactly known for edgy programming, and there are few characters more edgy than John Constantine. Would he smoke? Would they include his bi-sexuality? Would he be portrayed as the arrogant near-psychopath that he is? Would the show get into his occult hubris induced guilt? Question after question I asked (to no one in particular), hoping that through my constant inquiry Constantine would be the kind of show I’d watched when it aired, and not DVR’d and watched at 11:30 on a Saturday night.
After watching the first episode, “Non Est Asylum”, I was 60/40 in favor of the show.
Setting the episode in an asylum was a nice touch, but the show lacked… atmosphere? Things seemed to have no real gravity… even the possession didn’t feel too dangerous or, well, demonic. I decided to apply the rule of five: I’ll watch five episodes of anything (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. only got three and a half. Only time I never made it to five) and then decide whether or not I will continue watching. On November 21, “Danse Vaudou,” was the fifth episode. And I just might be done.
When I heard that Papa Midnight was going to show up, I was ecstatic.
So when I was forced to sit through Michael James Shaw’s underwhelming performance in “The Devil’s Vinyl” (aired on November 7), I was lightweight upset. By the way, “The Devil’s Vinyl” is, by a large margin, the best-written episode so far. Mark Verheiden and David. S Goyer wrote it. Yes, that David S. Goyer. Murderer of the Blade franchise. He who gave us the most un-Superman Superman in the Man of Steel. The director both of the genre train wrecks The Unborn and The Invisible. He did his thing with this episode. But the subsequent episode, “A Feast of Friends” was like having a great steak, but getting a Tootsie Roll as desert. Such a complete and utter letdown from Vinyl. And this is the primary problem with Constantine. It is entirely too uneven.
There is no tone to the entire enterprise. Is Constantine a badass occult practicing con man, or is he an emo penitent with a literal angel on his shoulder reminding him of his past and doing fu#kall? It wouldn’t mind it if they showed both sides, but I’m not getting the con man at all. He isn’t oily enough. Not to dismiss Matt Ryan’s portrayal — it is the fault of the writing.
NBC announced that they would be stopping Constantine’s episode order at 13. And this is a wonderful thing. Thirteen, in many beliefs and practices, is an auspicious number. Also, 13 episodes is a good number to assess when and where the train got derailed. Here are my pros and cons about the show:
- Matt Ryan is great in the role, despite his not looking terribly comfortable in it. The coat and tie are extensions of who John Constantine is, not costuming. If he can inhabit the clothes correctly, the clothes will further make the man.
- The soundtrack is great. It sets the mood and has been used to great effect. Big ups to the sound personnel.
- All of the magic seems boilerplate with added dead languages. If you are going to present a magical system, give it some character. In “Danse Vaudou” Papa Midnight’s ceremony looked like b-roll footage from a Soul II Soul video. On this same token, why was Papa’s magic on the fritz, while the white dude’s was fine? Papa Midnight practices magic in a way that directly connects him to the Loa. Are the Loa broken? It would have been a much more interesting storyline if it were Constantine who was having difficulties with his magic.
- Even when she is playing earnest and intense, there is a profound lack of gravitas. Kind of sick of the perceived necessity of having a cute woman to motivate the hero. Supernatural has avoided this by having fantastic guest appearances. I have zero problem with women in genre entertainment. But if you’re going to do it, do it right. See Felicity Smoak, Abby and Jenny Mills, all of the female characters on Firefly, and Charlie Bradbury for reference.
- Where is the synchronicity wave traveling? I was waiting to see how this would play out on television, as it is such a nuanced form of magic. I am really hoping that Harold Perrineau’s Manny isn’t some kind of embodiment of this. While I’m bringing it up…
- Manny! What is he good for? Absolutely nothing! I love Harold Perrineau. If you want to see how much of a beast he is on the acting tip, peep Baz Luhrmann’s blistering Romeo + Juliet in 1996. His performance of Mercutio is electrifying.
- Perrineau is wasted in Constantine. He arrives, he spouts about how he can’t help, and then he leaves. Manny’s clothing looks like some kind of slightly updated Z. Cavaricci and he looks so uncomfortable in it that, at times, it is comical.
- Scare us! We deserve at least 3-4 good scares per episode and we also need to feel creeped out by what’s going on. As it stands, it is a police procedural with supernatural elements. I think the show could benefit from being a supernatural/occult show with some crime (mainly con artist stuff) elements.
- While the whole blood dotted map is kind of interesting, Constantine could benefit from a more expansive mythology. Granted there have only been a handful of episodes, but the creature of the week thing got old after the second episode. I get that we’ve been told that “something is coming” but damn, can it hurry up?
I’m about two episodes behind, and I will be revisiting this at the conclusion of the initial 13 episodes. This is my take. What is yours?