In the US: Fridays, 10/9c, NBC
In the UK: Amazon Prime
Three episodes into Constantine, the latest attempt to adapt DC’s Vertigo horror comic Hellblazer in another medium, and we’re seeing marked signs of improvement after a very variable first couple of episodes. The pilot (which was modified slightly for the transmitted first episode to get rid of Lucy Griffiths) wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great: a PG-13 bit of horror, with a variably-accented, atypically moral John Constantine, that was about on a par with the average first season episode of Supernatural. Matt Ryan’s Constantine is a watered down version of the comic book character: a non-smoking, generic working class Brit (accent says lots of places in the North, driving licence says Liverpool, slang says London), a man constantly acting like an unnuanced supernatural tough guy, rather than a mercurial amoral, trickster, prepared to manipulate and betray in the interest of the bigger picture (or himself).
Things didn’t get any better with episode two. In fact, they got worse, as it was a truly dreadful, virtually unwatchable affair: a sub-Grimm bit of dullness, with Constantine chasing generic monsters in a mysteriously Welsh-obsessed Pennsylvania mining town. Bringing in anti-Romani racism just for larks, it was about stupid and soporific as it’s possible for a show about the paranormal to get, without its writers having been trepanned first – and that’s despite the show bringing in Angélica Celaya as a considerably more interesting replacement for Griffiths.
But the third episode has given me hope. While the ‘threat of the week’ was the somewhat generic ‘cursed LP’, the general furniture of the story was a whole lot better. The script by BSG/Smallville veteran Mark Verheiden drew a lot on the comic to flesh out Constantine, bringing in his punk band background (a bit of time travel maths or a longevity spell might be needed to square that) and favoured adversary/supernatural bystander Papa Midnite and his Ace of Winchesters. There was humour and general bad behaviour, too, and the show should get Brownie points for both an excellent use of ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and a couple of Doctor Who references that included a dimensionally transcendental house and the Constantine equivalent of psychic paper.
Constantine is still a tame affair that uses gore as a substitute for true horror. It relies on the iconography of the comic to give us the TV version of Constantine, Zed, Chas and other characters, but without giving us any real meat to their bones or signs that these are real people with real pasts, rather than Very Important Things That Had Happened To Them. And its plot are generic at best, unwatchable at worst.
But the show’s definitely getting there now. It’s drawing on some of the comic’s best bits to give us some things we haven’t really seen on TV before. Constantine is doing proper Hellblazer-esque magic. And we’re getting a proper roster of characters built up.
If it’s to survive in the ratings and be something more than Supernatural meets Grimm, the show needs to put on its big boy pants and truly embrace the darkness and Hellblazer‘s combination of heresy, politics and the personal. That’s assuming its got any chance of attracting back anyone who watched its offensively poor second episode, which is unlikely. And, of course, one good episode doesn’t mean everything that follows is going to be golden.
However, after the second episode, I was fairly certain I wasn’t going to be watching Constantine after the third, so it might still be in with a chance.
Barrometer rating: 3
Rob’s prediction: If it makes it to a season, I’ll be surprised, two seasons and I’ll be amazed, but some piece of dark magic might still save it