After a middling grab for the big screen several years back, everyone’s favorite misanthropic
chain-smoking bisexual British occult detective has finally landed on NBC with his own weekly television series, just in time for Halloween spookiness. But is it enough to wipe away the memories of the movie version of Constantine? Let’s look at the first episode of the series, “Non Est Asylum.”
When we first meet John Constantine, he has willingly admitted himself to Ravenscar Psychiatric Facility for the Mentally Deranged with the goal of erasing some of his own memories—not of his failed film career, but of a young girl named Astra. Not only did Constantine witness the murder of this young girl, but he claims to the resident psychiatrist that he’s also responsible for damning her soul to hell. The psychiatrist assumes that all of Constantine’s talk of demons and souls and hell is a coping mechanism for the trauma, but Constantine insists that it’s real. During a group therapy session, he follows a trail of cockroaches to the art therapy room, where he stumbles upon a possessed inmate. He swiftly exorcises the demon from the woman’s body, but soon discovers that it left behind a message for him: “LIV DIE.”
We are then introduced to a young woman named Liv Aberdine (lest you thought the demon was just a bad speller), who works at a car rental company in Atlanta, Georgia. Also there’s some kind of supernatural force out to kill her. Constantine shows up (along with his cab driver and apparently unkillable sidekick Chas) to befriend and protect her—it turns out the “LIV DIE” message was left by Liv’s father, a former associate of Constantine’s to whom he still owes a debt. This comes as a shock to Liv, who had been told that her father died before she was born. That, and the fact that she can now apparently see dead people, which, as we all know, takes some adjusting.
And so it takes some time, but Constantine eventually wins her trust despite his curmudgeonly Liverpudlian exterior. They set up shop in her father’s old stone hut in the woods near her childhood home, which is full of all kinds of neat divination tools and dusty tomes of arcane knowledge. Liv experiments with divination and cartography, as her father once had, while Constantine hits the books to find out more about Furcifer, the electricity-fueled demon that’s been after them. Constantine recruits a paranoid pill-popping scientist named Richie to help them out, which is about the last thing that Richie wants to do. But Constantine blackmails him into cooperating, with the knowledge that Richie was involved in whatever sordid affair led to Astra’s death and damnation (and in turn, Constantine’s PTSD).
Meanwhile, an angel named Manny keeps appearing to Constantine, trying to recruit him as a soldier (read: tool) in the coming war between good and evil. Constantine’s impulse, of course, is to tell the angel to shove it — he’s not interested in playing games with manipulative higher powers and working for their agenda without knowing what that agenda might be. That, and the fact that Constantine’s soul has already been damned to hell, so he has little incentive to risk his own life for altruism. But Manny drives a hard bargain, and suggests that maybe it’s not too late for Constantine’s soul to be redeemed.
Liv and Constantine prepare for a final confrontation with Furcifer, to cast him out of the world once and for all. They set a trap for the demon on the top of a parking garage, with a plan to capture it in a circle of runes. While they wait for Furcifer to show up, Liv tries to get Constantine to open up, instead of deflecting everything with wry, sardonic humor; he reveals that his mother died in childbirth and that his father blamed him for it all his life, and he began dabbling in the occult in an attempt to find his dead mother’s soul. Understandably, this was not quite the casual get-to-know-you conversation starter that Liv was expecting.
Luckily, Furcifer shows up to break up the awkward moment. He plays some mind games with Constantine, as demons are wont to do, and ultimately takes the form of Constantine himself, just because it’s cool to watch our hero face-off against the possessed demon version of himself. Furcifer reveals that his demon-kin rely on Constantine for a fresh stream of souls, because everyone who trusts Constantine always ends up dead. Richie shuts down the power grid to the city, robbing Furcifer of his power source, and Constantine manages to trap the demon in a magic flaming seal. In a last ditch attempt to negotiate, Furcifer offers to trade Astra’s soul for Liv’s, and Constantine almost takes him up on it—until Liv uses her newfound soul-seeing powers to look through Furcifer’s ruse and find that he doesn’t actually have Astra’s soul. Constantine promises that he’ll save Astra anyway, then banishes Furcifer back to hell.
Constantine sends Liv home with Richie. She asks him about Astra, and Richie reveals that she was the daughter of a mutual friend who was possessed by a lesser demon. Constantine thought to save her by summoning a greater demon to stop the lesser demon, but the greater took them both back to Hell. As they drive, Liv also realizes that they are at an intersection that she had discovered in her earlier scrying exercises—which is now a murder scene. This freaks Liv out even more, and she packs her bags and runs off to live with a cousin in California, too afraid to get wrapped in Constantine’s scary supernatural world. But before she goes, she spends an hour in the bathroom scrying on a map, leaving bloodstained marks wherever help is needed—a path for Constantine to follow.
Constantine, however, is at the pub arguing with a bartender over whether the Ramones or the Sex Pistols were the more influential band because he’s British and punk. Manny appears, in the form of the bartender, and suspects that Constantine intentionally pushed Liv away so that her blood would never end up on his hands. Manny had planned on having Liv’s powers as a weapon in the coming war and is less-than-pleased with Constantine’s actions, but Constantine himself still begrudgingly agrees to join the side of the angels.
Cut to…someone! Sketching images of Constantine in a frenzy. Dun dun dun!
All in all, I’d say that was a pretty solid hour of television. The plot moves at a lightning pace, as tends to be the case in many pilot episodes, as they try to cram as much information as possible into 42 minutes. For the most part, it wasn’t particularly distinct; swap out a few characters, and this could easily be an episode of Supernatural, or Grimm, or even Angel. If you’re a fan of occult detective stories, this is just as good as any other; but then, if you’re not already a comic book fan (or a Hellblazer fan specifically), I’m not sure what else I’d be able to say about it to entice you into watching. It’s a supernatural noir; I liked it; it’s good.
What really sets the show apart is Matt Ryan’s fantastic performance as John Constantine. Even though the character has already been around for 30 years, and even though the misanthropic detective is a fairly standard trope, Matt Ryan’s portrayal is spot-on and irresistibly likable—no easy feat, considering that “unlikability” is intrinsic to the character. But Ryan sells Constantine’s emotional deflection, his guilt, and his cynicism with so much empathy that you find yourself endeared to John Constantine despite the fact that, well, he’s kind of a dick.
One strange thing about watching this pilot was the foreknowledge that Liv’s character would not be continuing on in the series (to be replaced by Zed Martin, an actual character from the Hellblazer comics proper). Most genre shows require some kind of audience surrogate to ease the transition into otherworldly—either the central character is thrust into a strange new world (Buffy, Supernatural), or a fresh, naive protagonist joins up with the seasoned veteran of the strange world and is properly positioned to ask all the necessary expository questions (Doctor Who, Torchwood). Constantine is an example of the latter, where the main character has already been living in this world for quite some time (which actually might be the only thing that sets it apart from shows like Supernatural and Grimm). Liv’s character was obviously introduced as the audience surrogate, but for whatever reason, they decided to cut her from the show.
In some ways, it works; it defies expectations, and demonstrates just how much of a loner that John Constantine really is, that he would push away the audience surrogate after just one episode. Still, it felt like we were being set up for Liv’s world (including establishing Jasper Winters’ abandoned library / home as Constantine’s American homebase), but then she was abruptly cut from the story offscreen during the final scene (which was actually changed from the original leaked pilot).
So I guess what I’m saying is… it’ll be fun to watch next week’s episode when the series proper actually begins. On the bright side, I hope this means that next week’s re-pilot episode can focus more on spooky episode-of-the-week (especially considering that it’s Halloween), instead of world-building exposition. This week’s episode had a few scary moments, but I’d love to see more horror.
Also, did anyone else notice Doctor Fate’s helmet in Jasper Winters’ house?
Thom Dunn is a Boston-based writer, musician, homebrewer, and new media artist. Thom enjoys Oxford commas, metaphysics, and romantic clichés (especially when they involve whiskey and robots). He is a graduate of Clarion Writer’s Workshop at UCSD, and he firmly believes that Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” is the single worst atrocity committed against mankind. Find out more at thomdunn.net.