Constantine Pilot Review: Pilotitis Can't Keep A Good Exorcist Down In NBC's Promising Hellblazer Adaptation
Judging shows based strictly on their first episode must have been so much easier back in the day. Before the glory days of the binge watch, there was no need for any overarching plotline, mythology or 'shared universe'. Thus, in our times, do pilots suffer from this most modern of afflictions: pilotitis.
Pilotitis occurs when the debut episode of a show - network shows, generally - are forced to throw everything and the kitchen sink into a single 42 minute race. The episode is tasked with introducing the main characters, this week's plot, this season's plot, perhaps the entire show's plot, backstory, a healthy dose of action and/or special effects (these are often geek chic properties) and do it all so that it goes by quickly, but not too quickly. The Pilot episode is there to hook you, it's not there to necessarily be 'great' television. That's up to the second episode.
Which brings us to Constantine, the new DC series airing on NBC. The show is based off of 'Hellblazer', one of the most well-loved graphic novel series from the DC Vertigo line. It follows John Constantine, a roguish, mouthy, chain-smoking and very British - the last two are VERY IMPORTANT to fans - demon hunter/exorcist/con man, as he deals with a vast array of otherworldly and generally hellish beings that are bent on doing this or that awful thing to the world.
Despite suffering from a severe bout of pilotitis, the first episode of Constantine is still a breezy and fun hour of Friday night television. It does not do anything spectacularly, but then again, it is not given the time to do anything poorly. The show moves at a mile a minute, dropping us in and expecting us to hold on and pay attention. My exposure to Hellblazer is limited (mainly the very under-loved Keanu Reeves version), but unlike a certain other DC television property, this one isn't filled with an overwhelming amount of winks to the audience; it knows it has to establish itself not just to the small cadre of comic fans, but to the greater audience as well. To call it 'breathless' implies that at some point you were given a chance to have your breath taken away. I declare that you were never able to suck the air in in the first place.
When we first meet John Constantine (Matt Ryan), he is in a mental institution, having checked himself in there some time before for a soon-to-be-explained reason. After receiving a message from an old, and dead, friend, Constantine (never John) checks himself out and heads to America to protect the man's daughter, Liv (Lucy Griffith's) from the literal forces of hell. It's a whirlwind tour of an episode, cramming everything that's anything. At times you'll think, this should not be working at all, there's just too much.
But then there's Matt Ryan: scraggly, incorrigible, self-deprecating and haunted but also charming as all get out. He's the latest version of the Han Solo/Jack Sparrow 'rogue' character and he is simply great. Ryan brings more than enough to ground us, even as the rest of the plot may be spiraling out of control. 'If lost, look at Constantine.' the poster should read. He brings enough swagger to be intimidating when he needs to be, enough charm to not come off as the most depressed asshole in the world and enough of the old tortured soul aesthetic to give him meaning. Before the events of the episode, Constantine, during an exorcism, damned a young girl's soul to hell and he's been tearing himself up about it ever since. It is a great little 'season-long arc' that the creators of the show have put in there, and one that will no doubt come up as John Constantine is exorcising his way across the globe.
There are some sequences here that are more terrifying than any number of horror films. A dead woman, whose body is now possessed by a demon, rams a truck through an office and ends up badly mangled and the sight of her twisted, broken body - her head still moving and biting - is scarier than anything on American Horror Story. It's so sudden and unreal. This is on network television?
The effects are top notch for tv. Rain slows down to a stop; there's a whole lot of fire happening. The demonic flourishes, of which there are many, are just over-the-top enough to be scary, yet also strangely believable. It is a very cinematic show and the look of the episode does not suffer the flatness and poor staging that generally befalls TV. No doubt this is because the great Neil Marshall, who helmed several of the most action heavy episodes of Game of Thrones, directed the pilot. Let us hope they can keep up such a sumptuously visual look for the remainder of the season.
Constantine is surrounded by an eclectic group of supporting characters, including Manny the Angel (the always great Harold Perrineau) who brings John the 'how-is' from up on high. Jeremy Davies is once again playing himself as the tech guy of John's crew. Their relationship is fraying, and Constantine even blackmails him into doing the right thing. Because that's how he rolls. Then there's Chas (Charles Halford), who is one of Constantine's oldest friends. There's a good reason for that; Chas also gets one of the most shocking moments of the episode, which feels cheap when it happens but pays off afterwards. Another mystery to be revealed.
The weak link is Griffiths' Liv, who is meant as the framing-character that allows Constantine to basically explain everything to us. The behind the scenes scuttle is that the creators decided to take the show in a different direction, and so cut out Griffiths from the next few episodes and even reshooting some of this one. They make it work, but you cannot help but feel that the episode was meant to end differently. I liked Liv and wanted to see more of her, but her unremarkable exit seems clashes with the rest of the episode. We understand she's supposed to be important; turns out we're wrong.
There's just enough of a lot of things for everybody to find something to like. Fans of the supernatural (and of the short-lived Dresden Files!) will be enamored with the world. Matt Ryan will undoubtedly garner his share of fans. Cop fans will enjoy the monster-of-the-week aspect and comic book fans will still have things to bitch about, I am sure. (There is a Doctor Fate easter egg; the only such fanservice Constantine succumbs to, that I know of)
Nor does it do all of those things great, save for Ryan who is just a blast to watch. What the Pilot of Constantine does is ensure that you will be there for the second episode. The board has been set in the Hellblazer universe; now let's see how they play.
Constantine airs Friday, October 24 at 10/9 Central. Background Noise is GameNGuide's television column.