On the D/L – Constantine
Season 1 Episode 1 – “Non Est Asylum”
DC continues their domination of the small screen with Constantine, based on the Hellblazer comic series and I suppose loosely on the 2005 Keanu Reeves story of the same name.
John Constantine represents the occult fantasy fueled side of the DC universe so naturally his stories are able to be more fantastical and have to follow their own set of rules. This first episode spends much of the running time bringing the audience into the world that John Constantine inhabits and establishing how things work.
This is accomplished through the audience avatar being in the form of Liv (Lucy Griffiths), a young woman who is being stalked by a Demon hell bent (pun totally intended) on killing her and claiming her soul. It turns out that Liv is special in the sense that her father had a gift for seeing the demonic side of the world that he has passed onto her. Constantine owes her father a favour so does what he can to keep her safe and the episode wastes no time in throwing us in the middle of the situation.
The pace is frenetic and challenges the audience to keep up with what is going on. At times it’s very exposition heavy but a clear idea is given of some of the rules of this universe. More will be introduced as time goes on but what we have here is a solid introduction to John Constantine and the world of the occult that he operates in. There’s a lot covered here as well from angels, demons, spirits, spells, Constantine’s character history and a few other things.
Matt Ryan is a note perfect rendition of the character who seems to jump directly out of the comic page. It’s eerie how much this guy looks like the drawing of John Constantine and his performance is staggering. Constantine’s quirks are mostly intact from his self-depricating attitude, snarky wit, open disrespect of those around him, impatient demeanour and shades of depth as well as a heroic edge. There’s no mention of the character defining cancer though his time limit is somewhat hinted at and his chain smoking habit is completely gone. I must complement this show for keeping the character close to the original print version while keeping him fit to be on prime time NBC.
More to his character that we’re not seeing clearly exists but at the same time he’s refreshingly upfront. He seems to not tell people things because he can’t really be bothered but there’s a tortured soul buried under there as well. References to his mother’s death and the ongoing search for her in the other world as well as the guilt he feels over a mistake that resulted in a 9 year old girl suffering eternal damnation bring some pretty strong motivations for this character. Ryan’s a great lead and should carry this show nicely.
Lucy Griffiths gets the somewhat thankless chore of constantly asking questions so that the audience can have them answered as well as she does. Liv’s reactions are actually kind of baffling given what she learns in such a short time. When her finger is pricked by an amulet so that she can predict a terrible event of some description she doesn’t react with fear or terror. Instead she reacts with a calm curiosity that just felt out of place for me. I think Griffiths did a really good job considering the difficult job of being the receptacle for the exposition dump but it’s entirely too obvious that she was supposed to be the girl sidekick before being cut for reasons that we’ll never truly know. I read somewhere that between them filming the pilot and the series order she found another job but that actually doesn’t seem to be the case. If you’re interested there’s a decent summary of what is known here but either way, it makes this episode seem really weird as it gives her a lot of focus before she’s inevitably dropped. The scene where this is explained feels awkward and tacked on but I guess they just made the best of the situation they had if the -no doubt- expensive pilot was to still be used.
John Constantine has some supporting characters that are introduced here and bring their own traits to the table. Harold Perrineau plays an Angel named Manny who is assigned to watch over Constantine. He steps in and out of this episode to offer advice and remind Constantine of the interest in him. Something about this guy reminds me of Dean Stockwell’s Al from Quantum Leap in the way he would show up, give advice then leave just as quickly. Constantine’s impatient reaction to any of his appearances is fun to watch but may quickly become tiresome if it continues like this.
Chas (Charles Halford) is referred to as his oldest friends and seems to be nicely mysterious. He manages to come back fully healed from what should have been certain death. Constantine and Chas have a natural dynamic and really come across as good friends who have a long history together.
Jeremy Davies’ Ritchie Simpson was the major weak link for me in this episode. He was involved in the tragic situation involving the 9 year old girl and is handling it a lot less ably than Constantine appears to be. He’s a pill popping tortured guy who seems to be able to hack into anything. Something tells me his skills will prove to be more magical than any of the spells Constantine or the Demons he faces will ever cast.
The show generally looks great and clearly has the budget that Supernatural wishes it had. Fans of that show will feel right at home here with many of the references to the occult being similar as well as the rules being much the same. This makes sense as Supernatural is clearly heavily influenced by the Hellblazer comics -just look at Castiel’s outfit- so some overlap is expected. The Angels and Demons look fantastic as well as the visual effects used looking convincing.
Due to the heavy levels of exposition in this episode, it never really manages to become scary. Any elements that could be frightening are quickly explained away making them lose their effect. It seems that the show will go more occult action/adventure rather than leaning more towards a horror premise which is fine but it would be nice to see a more reasoned attempt to go for both, again like Supernatural has effectively done through the long run.
An effective if flawed first episode that nicely sets up the world and the characters. Matt Ryan’s portrayal of John Constantine is perfect and the character feels like he has jumped right off the printed page. There is a strong background set up to the show and characters that make for interesting fodder for the series. Lucy Griffiths’ Liv is a somewhat awkward edition that exists mainly to introduce us to the world John Constantine inhabits. It’s all too clear that she is in this episode to be the series sidekick but the departure of the actress has resulted in an awkward scene wrapping up why she won’t be in it any more. It doesn’t undermine this episode too much but the inclusion does come across as odd.
The pacing of the episode is quick and at times it is very exposition heavy which doesn’t always feel the most natural and downplays some moments that could have been more frightening if left mysterious. It manages to distance itself nicely from Supernatural, a show that this one will inevitably be compared to and the visual effects are really impressive.