NBC’s Promising ‘Constantine’ Suffers From an Uncertain Start

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Television’s big bets on comic book adaptations have largely paid off this season, with Fox’s Gotham doing all right for the network (although the quality of the Batman-centric drama has dipped since its dark and promising pilot) and The CW’s The Flash proving to be a hit, both with viewers and critics (the pilot episode was one of the best-received new pilots of the season). There are more adaptations in the works for next year, but before that, there’s NBC’s Constantine, a late entry to the game that premieres tonight.

To get the obvious question out of the way: Yes, the television show is much better than the Keanu Reeves film. Welsh actor Matt Ryan steps into the titular role as John Constantine, a demon hunter who is also plagued by his personal demons (how clever!), and he is miles better than Reeves. He has the magnetism and sardonic charm necessary for such a dark and nonstop-sarcastic character, calmly banishing demons and yelling Latin chants in a matter-of-fact way that plays up his character’s nonchalance with the supernatural. It’s all a defense mechanism, of course — he is definitely dealing with some serious shit, as the pilot opens with him checked into a mental hospital to deal with watching a young girl die. But Ryan deftly toes the line of his character’s complex personality. It also helps that Ryan looks the part in his white shirt, loose tie, perpetual stubble, and tortured good lucks. It’s just unfortunate that NBC can’t actually film him smoking cigarettes (as he does constantly in Hellblazer) and must show him stubbing out butts instead.

Therein lies one of the big worries about Constantine: It can feel like a watered-down, shadowy copy of the story, one that puts most of its effort into the cool tricks and visual effects but not much into the actual writing. It’s a fun pilot and a pretty solid adaptation (it falls somewhere between The Flash and Gotham), with darkly comic moments and legitimately creepy scenes. The show begins when Constantine is tasked with saving Liv (Lucy Griffiths), the daughter of a former colleague, from a demon. There are some typical exposition problems — much of the dialogue between Liv and Constantine is basically her asking a question about what the hell is going on and him responding in a snarky way, over-explaining every bit to the audience. This is to be expected in pilots, especially a pilot based on a massive and daunting series, but it does get old very quickly (and I can definitely see how Constantine’s ongoing snark could get old, despite how good Ryan is at delivering the lines).

While there is nothing that’s bad about the pilot — it’s watchable and enjoyable throughout — it can feel rushed at times, or hastily stitched together. I’m hesitant to make a firm judgment on the series, though, not just because pilots sometimes aren’t indicative of what the full series will look like, but also because Constantine in particular is actively trying to figure things out. Liv’s character is set up to be Constantine’s sidekick-slash-protégé, the wide-eyed yet strong woman who is thrust into this new world and helps him on his journey — both his demon-killing and personal journey — while learning some pretty weird stuff about herself. She’s not the strongest aspect of the pilot, especially because, as mentioned, she’s mostly there to ask questions and run from a demon, so she doesn’t get a chance to stand out or come into her own as a character.

Everyone behind Constantine clearly agrees; Liv was written out of the series (she’ll be replaced by another character from the comics: Zed), and the pilot makes it clear that this was a last-minute decision, and is visibly hampered by it. There were two pilots sent out to critics: the original set up Liv to be an ongoing character, while the second, the one that will air tonight, relegates her to guest actress and makes hasty edits to explain the choice. So that makes it hard to really form an opinion on Constantine based on the pilot because it’s certainly going to be different next week. This episode may be a bit muddled at times, and Constantine may be a lighter character than I prefer, but it’s entirely possible that this will all get fixed quickly.

Doing away with the notion of Constantine as a mentor to Liv and instead pairing him with Zed, a character who will act more as his equal, puts the show in a better position to focus on going deep into these fun, eerie, supernatural mysteries without slowing down for Constantine to give lessons to a rookie demon hunter. If Constantine can aim darker and focus more on keeping the literal and figurative demons at bay, it can become one of the breakout hits of the season. If it stays light and confused, it’ll just become another forgotten procedural.