PILOT LITE: Constantine (2014 television pilot)

Posted: October 27, 2014 in Constantine, DC, Deadman, Dr. Fate, Hellblazer, Spectre, Swamp Thing, Vertigo

I am easily the biggest Hellblazer fan that I know. This isn’t intended to sound like a boast, but I own John Constantine’s first appearance in Swamp Thing, all 300 issues of the ongoing title and every single crossover, special, miniseries, guest-spot and novel that the Vertigo character has been featured in. Again, I’m not trying to brag (well, maybe a little), I just want you to understand the respect and reverence I have for this character.

I’ve lived through one adaptation before (I’ll get to that later…my god will I get to that) as such, when it was announced that a new television series would be taking on John and his dark world, I was a veritable yin-yang of excitement and fear. For every element that sounded interesting, there was something that gave me pause. The show was to be dark and rely on horror rather than action…but it’s on network television. John would definitely be British and blonde…but he wasn’t allowed to smoke. He would be the cold bastard that fans know and love…but there wouldn’t be any swearing. And so this cycle of tempered anticipation continued up until the actual premiere.

“Just one of those days, squire.”

And now that the first episode has finally aired, I’d say that it mostly succeeds but more importantly, it has a lot of potential. The pilot isn’t nearly as polished as some of the more recent comic book shows, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I thought Gotham‘s pilot was excellent and the show has failed to live up to its premise since then. With Constantine, it feels a bit to me like they aren’t quite sure how to introduce audiences into this world. The show isn’t sure how much it should commit to the horror or how to perfectly pace the narrative. And honestly, that’s fine. Shows need a little bit of time to find their feet. Arrow didn’t really settle into its awesome groove until mid-way into the 1st season and it has continued to gain momentum ever since. I think Constantine has the potential to do that as well.

The pilot opens with John Constantine institutionalized at Ravenscar Hospital where he’s hoping to get over recent memories of an exorcism gone wrong. Fans of the comic will recognize this plot point immediately, and yet it has been subtly changed. The television series softens his time in the asylum considerably and makes it his choice. The doctors caring for him are actually looking after his best interest. In the book, he’s sent there against his will and basically tortured for months. I have to say that I actually like the change. As someone who has worked in the mental health field, the depiction of electroshock therapy and institutions in general is woefully out of date in most depictions. So it was nice to see something more in line with modern medical practices.

John is brought back into the occult world when he discovers that a daughter of an old comrade is going to die. With that we are introduced to Liv Aberdeen and what is probably my biggest issue with the pilot: The POV character. This character type is often employed in fantastical narratives as a way to explain this strange new world to audiences. Sadly, it’s often done very lazily and rarely works as anything other than a reason for the main character to explain how magic works or something to that effect. What’s even more unfortunate is that the Liv character and her subplot are shockingly similar to the Rachel Dodson character in the Constantine film. Both are gifted with powers they refuse to accept and must be tutored by John in how to tap into them. They also have family members who lived with such powers and died because of it. A majority of the pilot focuses on John trying to keep her safe from supernatural forces.

John may not be able to smoke on TV,
but that doesn’t mean he’s not a smoker…

Luckily, the producers and writers for this show clearly know when it’s working and when it isn’t. As such, they have already announced that Liv will not be a regular character. The ending of the pilot was reshot recently to write her out and introduce a more suitable female foil to John in the form of Zed. She’s another magic user who is from the early years of Hellblazer. This change is great for some very obvious reasons: first, she’s no novice and won’t have to be told what to do or how things work. Because of that, she won’t be a “damsel in distress”. Zed can hold her own and won’t need to perpetually be rescued by John. Again, while the pilot may falter in its female lead, it shows remarkable foresight that the producers recognized early on what wasn’t working and corrected it without hesitation. This does create one bit of weirdness, sadly, in that the pilot has a pretty disjointed ending. But I’ll take it if it means that future episodes will be better for it.

“You don’t need my cab anymore? Sweet! See ya!”

Another issue I have with the pilot is something that is relatively minor, but as a Hellblazer fan it rubbed me the wrong way. I try really hard to avoid nit-picky, fanboy complaining on this blog, so I do apologize. At one point mid-way through the episode, Chas (John’s sidekick who is played aptly by Charles Halford) is written out of the story. During this time, John drives a pick-up truck to get to where he needs to go. The image of John driving feels very wrong to me. In fact, a majority of Chas’s adventures in the comic are a result of John being unable to drive and relying on him (he owns a cab) to get around. I’m not saying that this something that detracts from the show as a whole, but as a fan it felt wrong. Again, the average person probably wouldn’t have noticed but it does beg the question that if John can drive, why does Chas chauffer him so often?

The pilot also introduces us to the character of Manny. Played by Harold Perrineau, he’s a mysterious angel that occasionally possesses people to give John advice/warnings. He’s probably the kind of character that’ll work as an information broker as the storylines progress. It makes sense and I’m sure he’ll be very useful as the series goes on. My only complaint with Manny is that he’s a new creation for the show. With his powers of possession, I just kept wondering why this wasn’t Boston Brand (also called Deadman). He’d make a great supporting character for this series, and since they’ve already hinted Doctor Fate and announced The Spectre making an appearance, it wouldn’t be so “out there” to see him. That’s probably pretty nit-picky too, but I usually prefer to see adapted characters when appropriate rather than newly created ones.

What speed! It took Smallville 9 years to get to that.

There is one aspect of the pilot that is absolutely stellar, and it’s arguably the most important part: John Constantine. Matt Ryan plays the role excellently. Aside from looking like him, and acting how John would, he has a way of holding his cards close that underscores his underlying danger. Probably the most interesting moment in the pilot, to me, is his conversation with Richie Simpson. This is an old friend from whom John needs help. When asking politely doesn’t work, John infers that if he doesn’t help he’ll frame him for murder. Absolutely, perfectly a true Constantinian moment. More than just Ryan’s look and delivery, the writers have a much clearer grasp on the character than the team behind the film.

Unlike a lot of the other pilots premiering this season, this one worried me pre-release. I feel like this review was unreasonably harsh because of my love for the character, but I also walked away wanting to see more. Because of my heightened affinity for the source material, the fact that I felt this adaptation respected the character and the world he inhabits says a lot about how it’s being handled.

Featuring Chas, Zed, John and Not-Deadman
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