01 “Non Est Asylum” (Constantine season 1) [SPOILERS]


constantine title

Declaring an interest here: I am a big fan of the Hellblazer comics, the source material for this new TV adaptation which is going by the name of Constantine.

The dark themes, and unflinchingly bleak look at a magician from Liverpool (Yay!) are hynotically well-written, with characters that leap of the page. I even like the 2005 Keanu Reeves film, also titled Constantine, which wasn’t much of an adaptation at all.

But this, this I have been looking forward to since it was announced. It promises to stick closer to the source material than did the film, and from the look of Matt Ryan in costume as the eponymous main character, it is off to a good start. The question, though, is how much of the comic they can get away with bringing to the screen.

The pilot episode opens with John Constantine in a mental asylum, after an exorcism gone wrong resulted in the death and damnation of a little girl. When he receives a cryptic message from something demonic, he leaves the asylum and shows up in the life of Liv, a woman who another demonic thing is suddenly out to kill. After explaining that he was a friend of her late father, and that she has his gift to see the dead and otherwordly, the two of them battle to keep her alive and to send the demon back to hell.

The first thing I have to say is this: Matt Ryan is John Constantine. From the look, to the attitude, to the slightly wavering Liverpudlian accent, he is like the John Constantine of the comics. I can only assume that Welsh-born Ryan himself is a fan, or has put some serious effort in getting into character.

The downside is that the other characters are little sidelined in comparison. It sort of makes sense in the case of Liv, given that after filming the pilot the creators decided to take a different tack with the series, and wrote her out. Thus, all of her characterisation here was rendered moot by John scaring her off to California at the end. A little more life for Chas, though, or particularly the mysterious angel Manny. I presume that there is more to come on the latter front, as whatever overarching big bad takes shape.

But no, this is very much the John Constantine show, as he zips about wisecracking and saving the world, but never really feeling like he’s in control. The moment in the climax where he wavers, where he actually changes his mind in response to a promise he has to know is dubious at best, feels human and flawed, which is where the comic character has always lived.

The pace is blistering, which works well for a pilot, being an uncompromising action-based romp through this world. It will have to slow down as it gets into its stride — I hope so, a whole series like that would be exhausting — but it was a thrill, and made me want to watch again next week.

The visuals were also a big highlight. It went for jump scares, but actually they work better on TV than film, I find. The moment where Liv sees her dead grandmother brushing her mothers hair, followed by a distinctly demonic revelation, was beautifully designed.

Ultimately, this was the start I wanted. Whether it will prove to be enough remains to be seen, and also depends on the introduction and exploration of characters other than Constantine. But in the coat and askew tie, Matt Ryan has the potential to carry this series a long way, and if the writing remains this sharp then I have very high hopes that this will become a much-watch series. If you didn’t like the 2005 film, give this a go; its not the same thing at all. If you did like the 2005 film, then give it a go; it will be, I suspect, something much better.

Closing thoughts:

  • I did watch the leaked initial pilot (So sue me! The summer was a long desert as far as good TV went, until Defiance came along) and whilst it was mostly the same, the final scenes were different. I think it would have been noticeable even if I hadn’t seen the earlier draft, but the final shots of Zed (presumably) painting picture after picture of Constantine was an excellent addition.
  • I didn’t see a single cigarette. I offer no opinion on that, just a comment.
  • This series, more than any of the other new series I’m watching at the moment, is in danger of cancellation if it doesn’t make a big enough splash. I really hope that some short-sighted studio executive doesn’t prematurely can it.
  • Wikipedia tells me that Papa Midnite will feature as the series goes on. As a villain, no less. This is very good news.
  • Manny’s “join us” bit was particularly interesting. As is his dangling the potential salvation of John’s doomed soul. I wonder what is coming…
  • Though, if the writers are going to introduce Zed, a la the last scene, anyone who is curious about what is in storecould do worse than pick up a copy of Hellblazer: Original Sins.

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