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Sunday, 26 October 2014

NBC Constantine: "Non Est Asylum"

I'm a big Hellblazer fan, so I've been looking forward to NBC's Constantine with trepidation. Is it going to be any good? Well, no. Hellblazer is not well suited to the formulas and restrictions of US network television. But I'm a glutton for punishment, so I'm going to keep watching.

Predictably, I wasn't exactly blown away by the pilot episode's combination of stilted exposition and occult horror cliches. That being said, a pilot is a pilot is a pilot. It's entirely possible that this show will improve later on. In the meantime, I'm gonna do one of the worst things a TV critic can do: over-analyse a show based on its inevitably simplistic first episode.

We begin with an origin story that will be familiar to Hellblazer fans: John Constantine in a mental hospital. He allowed a young girl to be killed and dragged to Hell by a demon, so now he feels bad. And for whatever reason, that leads to electric shock treatment. Everything else in the episode will feel familiar even to new viewers, thanks to its solid basis in cliché. Daddy issues, a Dark Past, and a young woman (Liv) who needs the protagonist's help -- it's all there, and it all progresses more or less as expected.
Having saved the girl and confronted his literal/figurative demons, Constantine ends the episode with an embarrassing voiceover monologue while wandering the city at night. So noir. "I'm the one who steps from the shadows, all trenchcoat and arrogance," he says, like a 14-year-old boy trying to sound cool. Not exactly Shakespeare, but it adheres to my expectations for mainstream US drama pilots, which generally consist of characters explaining things to each other in very plain terms.

The biggest disappointment was that they hired the excellent Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, Doomsday) to direct an episode that could never be much above mediocre. I hope he comes back later in the series, to work on something a little more interesting. He's a perfect choice for this show, and honestly they need all the help they can get.

I've never subscribed to the idea that TV/movie adaptations need to be "accurate" in order to be good. Some things just can't be directly adapted for the screen -- for example Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which relies a lot on footnotes and a very precise literary style.

In the case of comicbook adaptations like Constantine, the original was written by multiple people over a period of decades. In this context the most important thing is to replicate the tone and characterization of the comics, and I'm not confident they're going to manage it. Most of John Constantine's most recognizable personality traits (kind of a screwup; bad at relationships; sometimes only does the right thing when pushed) are already stereotypical for morally ambiguous TV antiheroes. The problem is, Constantine is more than the sum of his parts.

There are a zillion other unshaven douchebag antiheroes on TV, most of them with their own selection of addictions, dead parents and dark pasts. At the moment, the only thing distinguishing this show from the shortlived Dresden Files adaptation is the protagonist's accent, and Constantine already shares way too many similarities with Supernatural.

The thing that should be setting Constantine apart is his status as a counterculture icon. But since this type of show is petrified of making any kind of political statement, I'm not holding out much hope.

When Constantine was first announced, the showrunners were careful to reassure fans that Constantine would be blond and that they'd try to dodge NBC's anti-smoking rules. This was to counteract the backlash against the Keanu Reeves Constantine movie, which basically took a dump on Hellblazer canon. Still, I wasn't reassured. Constantine's smoking is important to a storyline in the comics where he gets lung cancer, but making him a non-smoker would be a relatively superficial change compared to some.

More than anything else, the reason why Hellblazer has enjoyed such longevity is its social relevance. I'm all for picking apart Captain America for its political subtext, but Hellblazer is another matter entirely. This ain't subtext. Half of the classic 1980s comics read like hatemail to Margaret Thatcher, and Constantine is very much a product of his upbringing and experiences in late 20th century Britain.

In the NBC show, Constantine is presumably in his 30s, meaning he was born sometime around 1980. John Constantine, Hellblazer edition, was born in 1953 and aged in real time throughout the comics. Now, I do understand why NBC decided to set Constantine in the present day, because an occult-themed show set in 1980s Britain would be kind of a hard sell. But you've got to admit that being born in the '80s creates a very different origin story for this character.
One detail that rubbed me up the wrong way was a scene where Constantine argues with a bartender over who is the "most" influential band, the Sex Pistols or the Ramones. Huh? Why would someone born in 1980 have a stake in the Sex Pistols, a band that were only really relevant to the zeitgeist of 1977? Evidently this is meant as a callback to the canon backstory of him being in a punk band in the '70s, but NBC's version of Constantine was a teenager during the height of Britpop. If they wind up including flashbacks to him touring with Mucous Membrane in the late '90s, he's gonna seem like a pop-culture relic.

Realistically speaking, I know Constantine is never going to have the same political weight as the comics. That doesn't mean I can't hold out hope for improvement in other areas, though. First, they need to carve out a tone that sets the show apart from its many competitors, particularly Supernatural. Unfortunately one of the showrunners is David S. Goyer (the "S" stands for sexist), so it's unlikely to outstrip Supernatural in the feminism department.

Otherwise, I'm hoping they stop relying on demonic horror cliches and try to do something interesting with Hellblazer's occult background. That, and hopefully make it clear that this isn't a show about Constantine's heroic quest to defeat the forces of darkness. All the best Hellblazer storylines either begin with Constantine trying to avoid helping someone, or with him being blackmailed or cajoled into helping an old friend, only to fuck up horribly when the time comes.

In other words, the best way to replicate the personality of Hellblazer is to end most of this show's episodes on a downbeat, anticlimactic note. Good luck with that.

Next: "The Darkness Beneath"


  1. also, the bisexuality

    1. yes, quite. i'll be going into that in later posts, if the show proves interesting enough to write about on a regular basis.

    2. oh cool. thank you. i look forward to it

  2. I'm glad they're going to be switching Liv out for the mysterious-Constantine-fixated-scribbler, honestly. For a show that had 42 minutes to fill, they did absolutely nothing to add dimension to her character (although David Goyer may view the concept of a women with more than two dimensions as the deranged figment of a feminist's fevered imagination). I don't know if it was the fact that Matt Ryan and Lucy Griffiths had a distractingly miniscule amount of chemistry, but maybe another co-star would help Ryan be less wooden? The scenes with the most life were the ones he shared with Harold Perrineau (which, cue the shipping).

  3. 'Unfortunately one of the showrunners is David S. Goyer (the "S" stands for sexist)'

    Brilliant line

  4. As far a Supernatural and Dresden Files go, both of those series owe a fair amount to Hellblazer, so it's an odd ... cycle of influence.
    (I did have a moment of happiness for the music in the cab... but you are dead on about political relevance, and the setting.)

  5. I am an American man, and I have decided to boycott American women. In a nutshell, American women are the most likely to cheat on you, to divorce you, to get fat, to steal half of your money in the divorce courts, don’t know how to cook or clean, don’t want to have children, etc. Therefore, what intelligent man would want to get involved with American women?

    American women are generally immature, selfish, extremely arrogant and self-centered, mentally unstable, irresponsible, and highly unchaste. The behavior of most American women is utterly disgusting, to say the least.

    This blog is my attempt to explain why I feel American women are inferior to foreign women (non-American women), and why American men should boycott American women, and date/marry only foreign (non-American) women.


  6. @boycottamericanwomen

    Western women are trash. Britain is the same, the women are solopistic and watch Kim Kardashian and Geordie Shore all day. Go and get yourself an Asian, southern European or Eastern European women. I see white men/asian female is by far the main interracial marriage in the USA. Every white guy in the UK prefers Eastern European cultural women to British. Boycott the Americanized, cultureless, guilt-less, feminazis and leave them to die alone with a Tyrone/Jamal son that looks nothing like them.

    1. I'm sure Western women everywhere are really losing sleep over your decision to remove your crazy arse from the dating pool.

    2. Translation "the only way I can get a wife is to buy one on the internet, but I'm pretending like I'm the one making a principled stand."