Can you believe I’ve had this review drafted for a couple of years? Now, much like things happen in the world of Constantine, it’s begun to haunt me, to possess the other parts of The Mental Attic, so I have no choice but to send it out into the world and hope it doesn’t do much damage…ok, maybe that was a bit dramatic, but here’s the review of the first and only season of Constantine, the second (and best) adaptation of Hellblazer and the adventures of John Constantine!
Genre(s): Drama | Horror
Created By: David S. Goyer
Air Date: 2014 – 2015
When I first saw the series announced, I was sceptical. As a fan of Hellblazer, I had absolutely despised the Keanu Reeves film, a muddled piece of nonsense with the name Constantine slapped on it just for marketing purposes–though with an amazing Satan in Peter Stormare. But as the weeks went by and I saw more promotional material, particularly photos and clips of Matt Ryan in-character, I grew optimistic, because it seems much closer to the character I’d known and loved for years.
Then the première came and it hooked me, instantly. I wanted to know more. even if they made Chas American and immortal. Trust me, as a bit of a comic purist then, that change bothered me to all hell, but thanks to Charles Halford’s performance and his fantastic on-screen chemistry with Matt Ryan, I found a way to let go of it and enjoy the cab ride.
But then they switched up the leading lady, shoehorned Zed into the picture and made it so Constantine couldn’t smoke on TV. This was a character who smoked Silk Cuts from the very first issue of the series and chainsmoked his way to success. In another era that would’ve been fine, but in the overly politically correct world where Constantine made it to TV, they had to carefully edit those out, so John would be about to light or put out a cigarette in every scene, without showing him actually smoking the damn thing. I applaud the direction and editing, as it made this major annoyance and surprisingly huge production controversy into something forgettable. Well, it was them and Matt Ryan’s performance, which made you focus on what Constantine was saying and planning instead of what he was smoking.
If this is starting to sound like a love letter to Matt Ryan, I’m sorry but he’s most definitely the best thing about the show, bringing not only the swagger of JonCon, the intensity of the Magus and the real raw humanity of John Constantine at his worst, when he’s at night, alone, nursing a bottle of gin, trying to drown the realisation that whatever his intentions, he’s going to break everything and everyone he loves. It’s who he is. John Constantine would risk the world in a gamble to save it, and you can see the weight of that responsibility and those sins on Matt Ryan’s shoulders. Even if his accent is ever so slightly more Welsh than Scouse, this guy IS John Constantine.
Having said so, I can forgive the accent, but with more hatred than I thought imaginable, I truly despise the fact they mispronounce the name. John Constantine said it himself in the comics, it’s not “Constan-teen.”
At the start of the season we see Constantine in an asylum, self-committed after the Newcastle Incident, where a botched summoning resulted in a girl murdered and her soul dragged to hell. He’s been trying his best to stay out of the magic game, to put his demons to rest, even if he annoys the psychiatrists in their sessions with his attitude and his “refusal” to accept that the demons are in his mind.
But this is John Constantine and what he wants rarely matters, so he receives a warning in the form of a patient possessed by one of his dead friends, Jasper. After checking out he seeks our Jasper’s daughter, who has a demon after her, to prevent her from joining the fight against the Coming Darkness, a wave of evil spreading throughout the world, making the things that go bump in the night bolder than ever before, unafraid of lashing out at a nearby innocent. John protects her and teaches her the ropes for the business, but it’s ultimately too much for her and she departs, leaving a scrying map behind for John, with blood marks over places across the United States. These dried points become moist, the blood coming alive, when something is afoot.
And so, the pilot introduces us to two-thirds of the main cast, John and Chas, and sets up the procedural and monster-of-the-week nature of the show, which is frankly its major weakness. One of the things that made Hellblazer stand apart from other comics was that its stories were rarely of the one-shot villain-of-the-week variety. Most issues were part of three or four chapter story arcs, with the one-shots acting as breaks between arcs.
If Constantine had been allowed to follow this same pattern, I think we would’ve had stronger stories told over the season. As it stands, the writers needed to give you enough development to keep you invested in the season as a whole while still going through the procedural motions of solving the case at hand.
It worked, the writers struck that balance well, and they did so without compromising the tense atmosphere John Constantine stories need to be effective. Every episode is suspenseful, eerie, sometimes scary and it matches the characters’ intensity so that when they go full on mumbo-jumbo, they don’t lose the audience, break their suspension of disbelief, but instead draw them in further. It’s frankly phenomenal.
Of course there are hiccups and the biggest one, and my major gripe, was Zed. The issue with this character is twofold, and has nothing to do with the awesome actress, Angelica Celaya. The first issue is that the character’s introduction is half-baked, shoehorned. At the end of the pilot, we see her drawing sketches of Constantine and while I love the fact she has hundreds of Hellblazer cover art pieces littering her room, they introduce her with this fascination with Constantine, this desperate need to find him. The second issue, and related, is that they never explain why she wants to find him, why her Deus Ex Machina vision engine keeps bringing her images of him.
True, it’s another manipulation by the powers that be to give John the tools he needs to complete his job, but the character lacks a motivation, a personal stake in staying, and the first season of the show does a horrendous job at conveying her story, with the only hints of it happening later of the season and which deal with Zed’s father, the leader of a religious cult which sees Zed as something of a golden child, which I admit is a nice nod to her first storyline on Hellblazer. But the problem lies in that for most of the season she feels like a guest character, someone there for the ride for a little while before she moves on. And by the time we can see deep enough into the character to begin to understand why she’s joined the fight, it’s too late in the season already.
Speaking of the powers that be, there’s Manny, portrayed by Harold Perrineau, an angel and recurring annoyance and conscience for Constantine, though his motivations are shady, as it tends to happen with celestial characters. I enjoyed the character greatly, particularly the banter between him and Constantine, even more when the Scouser got the upper hand on him, tricking him or forcing him to do something he clearly doesn’t want to. But you can’t hope to manipulate John Constantine without him screwing you over even once.
Manipulation is at the heart of the season’s plot, with the Coming Darkness and its servants out there, striking out at innocents until Constantine puts them down. But the leadership, the people behind this wave of evil are always hidden, and it’s the season arc to discover who they are and just what the hell they want, pun intended, though sadly we never get to see that. We learn their name, we discover the identity of one of the masterminds behind it all, but the plan remains shrouded in mystery at the close of the season, which is a damn shame, because it’s a pretty damn good mystery, and the way they wrote it, you never feel like episodes aren’t advancing the plot. On the contrary, every episode gives another clue, which is what you need in stories like these.
On a final note, I adore the number of references to Hellblazer and the mystical side of DC/Vertigo. There’s Doctor Fate’s helmet, Ravenscar asylum, the Newcastle Incident, some backwards writing that clearly references Zatanna. The silk cuts, even if they never smoke them, references to John’s punk rock band Mucous Membrane. It’s all there, and it’s fantastic. Hell, they even brought Papa Midnite and the Hunger demon story with Gaz and they’re phenomenal!
Constantine is a fantastic show that deserved so much more, particularly a way to break free from the procedural nature of its writing, so it could focus more on the stories it wanted to tell, particularly those of its characters. We’ll never see season 2, but between crossovers with the Arrow-verse and the announced animated series airing on the CW soon, we’re definitely getting more Matt Ryan as John Constantine, and that’s always a good thing. Now I just wish they’d properly pronounce the name!
4.5/5 – Amazing!