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Sunday, 2 November 2014

Constantine: "The Darkness Beneath"

Previously: Constantine, "Non Est Asylum"

If you're still on the fence about watching this week's Constantine, here's a line that tells you everything you need to know: "There's nothing blacker than gypsy magic."

Yes, this episode hinged on the kind of racist stereotype that I'm surprised is even allowed on TV in 2014. Friends, this was not a pleasant hour of television.
In order to introduce the new female lead Zed, episode 2 saw Constantine visit a Pennsylvania mining town without his regular (and so far pointless) sidekick Chas. This town had a problem with vengeful spirits killing off local miners, and because Constantine is indistinguishable from Supernatural, our hero traveled across America to solve their problem by interrogating a bunch of angry men and befriending a sexy yet mysterious lady. That's Zed, by the way. We still don't know much about her except that she was probably described as "tempestuous" in the casting call.

The victim in the pre-credits scene was a mean drunk husband who burned to death in the shower. After various unimaginative demonic shenanigans, we learn that his wife is the one who brought the mine monsters into town, and Constantine's solution is to... bring her (implicitly) abusive husband back to drag her down to Hell. Oh, and she's a "Romani girl," hence the godawful "gypsy magic" line I quoted above. To make matters worse, this tired old stereotype was completely unnecessary to the situation at hand, and could've been removed without making any difference to the plot.
The most frustrating thing with this episode was how easily they could've made it better. It was written by the creator of Farscape, a delightfully weird show with its fair share of interesting female characters. But this episode wasn't just poorly written, it was a paint-by-numbers example of generic supernatural/mystery TV. What makes this all the more baffling is that it's adapted from a comic that actually does have some personality, and both of the showrunners are supposedly Hellblazer fans. I'm yet to see much evidence that anyone in this show has gone beyond reading the Hellblazer Wikipedia page, though.

Last week I mentioned that one of Constantine's biggest problems will be differentiating itself from similar genre shows. Well, that issue is already making itself known. This episode was even more like Supernatural than last week: Constantine saves a small town from undead spirits, and the unimaginative monster-of-the-week storyline was marred by sexist and racist subtext. At least Supernatural is capable of genuine menace and horror, and its dud episodes are elevated by the compelling relationships between its lead characters. Unfortunately, it looks like Constantine is only emulating Supernatural's bad points.
The whole "Pennsylvania mining town" concept could have been used to transfer themes from Hellblazer to a contemporary American setting. But there the resemblance ends. What we got was a story where a woman is clearly intimidated by her husband (who is implied to be abusive), and uses her magic powers to warp some protective spirits into attacking miners as revenge. This is a totally solid fairytale idea, and could have ended on the very Hellblazer-ish note of Constantine having to "defeat" an enemy who isn't really a villain, but is just a normal person who has been pushed to the limit.

Instead we got an episode that fails to explore the emotional context of the setting, and culminates in the wife character being depicted as a one-note villain who is punished by being dragged to hell by the spirit of her husband. And let's not forget that Constantine just blew up the local coal mine, thus ruining the economy of the entire town. I feel like they should've made a bigger deal out of that??

There are two explanations here: Either the writers are simply misinterpreting the way the Hellblazer comics told this kind of morally ambiguous story, OR they're purposefully writing this kind of simple, cliched episode because they think it's the best way to stay on air.
I have no idea how many women are on the production staff at Constantine, but I'm guessing not many. So far Zed is slightly less cardboardy than Liv, the female lead who was written out of the pilot episode. That doesn't mean Zed behaves like an actual human woman, though. The relationship between her and Constantine is very muddled, lurching from unconvincing sexual tension to an intrinsically unpleasant dynamic where she is ~drawn to him~ while he orders her around and acts like a douche.

The thing is, the Hellblazer version of Constantine is by no means a feminist character, or even a nice guy. He tries to do the right thing, but he screws up a lot. But the comics tend to be critical of this, and we also benefit from seeing his internal monologue all the time. Ideally, Constantine would show his struggle to be a good man, but balance this with storylines where he fucks up or is forced to make bad choices. He also needs to be backed up by a well-written female character, which Zed is not. She's meant to be a foil to Constantine, but their relationship is unbalanced from Day 1. She needs his help with her powers, while he uses those powers for his own ends. On top of that, she has to persuade him to let her join him. We're also told that she's in her mid-20s -- an inexplicable decision because AngĂ©lica Celaya is 32, only one year younger than Matt Ryan.

With Zed now thrown into the mix, we're left with an entire cast of characters whose motivations are frustratingly unclear -- and not in a good way. Constantine appears to be motivated by sheer altruism to follow Liv's map and fight a bunch of monsters. Chas may or may not be some kind of traveling demon hunter as well. And Zed's reasons for teaming up with Constantine are partly because she needs his help, and partly because... she dreams about him? How convenient.
As it stands, Constantine can only go downhill if it continues on in this vein. The similarities with Supernatural are too pronounced, and so far Constantine's characterization is disappointingly weak.

I'm hoping that they do a character-focused episode soon, so we can learn more about Constantine's backstory and get a better idea of his motivation. Right now he feels like an extremely watered-down interpretation of the character we see in Hellblazer, to the point where he's only recognisable thanks to superficial traits like his accent and costume. A costume which, by the way, is already beginning to look a little awkward. He wears that brand-new trenchcoat and undone red tie all the time, and it's making him look like a poseur. Why not just take the tie off, or at least tie it properly for part of the episode? Most viewers have little or no knowledge of the comics, so callbacks like this are immaterial. They should lay off the meaningless details (Britishisms like "blighter," really?) and focus more on the actual substance of the show -- such as it is.


  1. You and I could not have more opposite feelings about this show.

  2. Did you even read a fucking Hellblazer comic before you wrote this?for fuck's sake the guy is a piece of shit what would you expect?And that's what makes the show so awesome.if you're so offensed about this i don't even wanna think about what you'll say of the other shit depicted in the comic,like a fucking war between black people and the police,or constantine calling a guy need to understand that the guy is an asshole and that's why we love him.I wrote too much for this fucking article..up yours,mate

    1. I have read many Hellblazer comics and it looks like I understood them a lot better than you did, Anon.

    2. I would point out the irony of getting so offended by someone else's offence that you feel the need to post a rambling, butthurt rant in response, but I have a feeling that the nuance would be beyond you.

  3. after seeing this trainwreck of an episode, i started re-reading hellblzer from the beginning.
    in the 15 or so issues i have read we have bankers that are actually demons(with him constantly complaining about rich ppl and yuppies), a condamnation of religion gone too far, and several instances of him condamning verbally or assaulting young racist skinhead while helping their victims aka the indian shop owner who lives near him and his gay friend ray.The comic is also showing him as mentally ill and rejected by society, inable to stay out of an asylum for more than 6 months.
    Its 2014 and they are unable to accomplish even a fraction of this.
    Constantine is a fucking asshole, but more importantly he is also an anti-capitalistic, anti-discriminatory asshole.

    1. Yeah, this seems like a classic case of the writers failing to tell the difference between telling an interesting and socially aware story about a character with an abrasive personality, and simply telling a generic story that revolves around a guy who acts like a douche all the time. Unfortunately, many TV shows seem to suffer from this problem.

    2. the worse is that a lot of people are eating it up, thinking that just because matt ryan looks like constine at the plot loosely follow the comic is is "authentic,not at all like the movie" when it is as inaccurate, and probably more offensive. i don't understand how the show writers can not understand that constantine how boring it is to write constnatine as yet another assholish white dude

    3. Yeah, that doesn't surprise me a huge deal because fans are the only people who will have been reading the promo stuff for this show on comics sites like Bleeding Cool etc, and the showrunners have been very keen to emphasise Matt Ryan's appearance/performance, and their battle to make him look like he's smoking onscreen. Which are in fact relatively superficial characteristics, but superficial is often enough for things like this -- for example, fans habitually freaking out when an actor with the "wrong" hair colour is cast in any kind of adaptation, even though hair can, you know... be died.

      anyhow, i too have no idea why they felt the need to make constantine into another generic TV asshole, but perhaps it was inevitable. ://

  4. IIRC, Zed-From-The-Comics was a member of an oppressive abusive satanic cult who was supposed to get impregnated by John (who still had demon blood in him from his lung cancer "cure") so she could bear the anti-Christ. Out of all the female characters from the book, THAT is the one they bring to tv? Assuming they'll be using any of her storyline, of course.

    Thanks for the write-up. John Constantine is (or was, I haven't read mainstream comics in a few years) consistently portrayed as an abusive asshole who makes bad judgements and uses his friends... but it's also generally portrayed as a negative thing, that we as readers are meant to judge him. So it's disappointing to see that show takes that aspect of him and spins it as yet another abusive male asshole who's a genius so everyone has to put up with him.

    1. I have no idea what they're going to do with Zed here because the character they're introducing right now has very little chance of having much in common with the comics character. Perhaps they just decided to use the name and some of the vaguely ~supernatural~ aspects to give it a vague link to the comic, who knows. Chas is rather baffling in this context as well, because making him an American demon-hunter dude kind of makes him... a completely different character with a completely different purpose.

    2. Hi Brigid, I watched about 3 episodes of this racist trash before I couldn't stomach it any more...I agree with everything Hello Tailor says. I too remember Constantine being kind of a jerk, but the thing is, not this particular variety of jerk. :(

  5. Actually he gave her a chance and briefly mentioned that right now dark magic is way more toxic than normal, in other words she was becoming twisted. I mean so far they have eluded that he is in fact a smoker. Zed is eye candy for the demographic and I'm getting the impression the Constantine doesn't trust her, then again unclear if it's less or more then usual. The comic compared to this, that's like comparing the impact of Beatles to Nicky Minaj in the same breath. Comics are a nitch market, Constantine the comic character can be way more out there then a TV show that has to pander to advertisers and reach a demographic to make it economical. I'm surprised they adapted it at all, let's face it, Constantine is the guy you just love to hate at times

    1. I agree that the TV adaptation has to appeal to a wider demographic than the comics, but that doesn't mean they have to aim for the lowest common denominator. I mean, this wasn't populist so much as just bad television. Both of the showrunners are supposedly fans of Hellblazer, so it seems bizarre that they'd go to all this trouble to create something that fails to represent most of what made the comics appealing in the first place. (Also mostly unrelated, but Nicki Minaj is awesome and probably more culturally relevant than the Beatles at this point, haha.)

  6. I was not a huge fan of Zed. I can't say that I loved Liv either, but... I really was not impressed with the character of Zed. Maybe it was just the actress... but I just found her to be incredibly cheesy. Plus the storyline was terrible this week. Don't know if I'll keep watching.

    Midwest Darling

  7. Ew, racist anti-Roma stereotype on second episode? Thanks for watching it for me so I won't have to.

  8. I was appalled by the whole Romani stereotype thing. I read a lot of Hellblazer, and I was genuinely expecting that to be a red herring...
    There were things I liked about it, to be sure (like the apartment full of very familiar looking art) but the decision to place the blame on Romani magic, soured the whole thing for me.

  9. Urgh, I was really looking forward to watching this series but I think now I won't bother. :(

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  11. Totally ruined it for me too, not that the dropping the female lead as if they're interchangeable instead of just fleshing out her character made me want to stay either, almost every single choice has made me think eurgh... a big shame to see such pathetic stereotypes and terrible characters without ever once commenting on them, another example of how bad writers just have no awareness whatsoever.

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