27 Oct 2014

[Review] - Constantine, Season 1 Premiere, Episode 1, "Non Est Asylum"

Courtesy of Warner Bros Television
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I hate reviewing pilot episodes. A pilot is really just a marketing tool, an episode made to sell a premise to a network, in the hopes that the money-men will see something profitable in the concept, green-light the thing, and then let the storytellers get to work making something artistically worthy of our attention. It is rare that a pilot is artistically worthy of anything. Every so often, you'll get a pilot that really works; this is usually an indication of a writer having a precise vision of how the show is going to precede. Usually though, a pilot is like watching a new born horse walk; it's clumsy, trips over itself despite it's best intentions and is covered in goo.

True to form is the premiere episode of Constantine, the third of the new DC super heroes TV series to premiere this season. This pilot really should have been thrown away. However, because of the size of TV budgets these days (even modest budgets on network television), that doesn't happen. So, we're left with a half cooked burrito of an episode, alternatively chewy and well seasoned; or raw, unappetizing and potentially harmful. Considering that the executive producers (showrunner Daniel Cerone and David S. Goyer) have already announced that they've retooled the show from episode two on, citing a new creative direction, I suppose well have to wait until next week to fully understand how vestigial this first episode really is.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that you should put down before they put you down.

The biggest impression I was left with after the episode concluded was how much potential was left to rot when they were cobbling this episode together. John Constantine, from the Vertigo book Hellblazer, had long been one of the few solitudes in the DC arsenal where long form and meaningful storytelling could occur. Complex and more mature and modern issues were not strangers to it's pages. Grief played a big role, but in the 300 issues and 25 years of the comic, there were few dark notions that didn't get their day on the page. Suicide, sexuality, terminal disease, obsession, depression all were explored through the guise of demons and magic and a lone anti-hero. Then the New 52 brought all that to an end, and rebooted the character as just another puckish rogue, trapped in a never ending series of fist fights.

There is, presuming that this new NBC series lasts, plenty of time for the televised Constantine to visit all these same issue, though I doubt it will. The creators have already taken some issues off the table. The pilot certainly digs a deep well of woe for John to wallow in, and I'll leave it to later episodes to judge how often and how deep he drinks from it. But on the surface, it seems like this John Constantine has more in common with his newer, more action hero version than the begrudging working stiff of Vertigo fame.

Part of that comes from the American and British perspectives, and this televised Constantine (as envisioned by Goyer, who has never known the definition of subtly) is decidedly American. He even wears completely unnecessary sunglasses. The British character, created and largely written by Brits, originally personified a very British attitude. He was put upon, drowning in guilt and loss and expressing this by clapping down hard on his emotions and letting them build. He was the very definition of a reluctant hero, and only acting with the least amount of activity possible when he had no other choice. By and large, his problems were ones of his own making, and even when he helped, it usually went bad.

Americans can't stand this level of inactivity. John is in possession of skills, and therefore, even against his better judgement, must be compelled to act for the greater good. The American notion of a hero is someone who does what must be done despite the challenge that await them, and succeed completely against all odds. The British have a much more - I'm going to use the world realistic - perspective: there is no such thing as a free lunch. An act, made in the name of good, can be worse than not acting at all. It's an attitude left over from the war, where Britain stood up as the sovereigns of peace and justice in the world, and suffered for it. Americans don't like that level of moral complexity in their superheroes. It doesn't jive with the American Dream.

We need look no further to see the divide between these two national outlooks than the character of Chas, played in the series by Charles Halford. In the source material, Chas is Constantine's oldest and arguably only friend. He is someone who is always selflessly willing to lend John a hand, and John, out of respect, tries to keep Chas divorced from the insanity and almost certain death that his life of a roving con artist and magician entails. Their friendship is born out of mutual devotion to the other's well-being. In this TV series, Chas is imbued with some kind of supernatural ability to come back to life, meaning that no matter what madness Constantine unleashes, he'll always be safe, and John will always have a friend. In the American version, it is a passive and unearned companionship, built on an immovable status quo.

Or Constantine himself, played by Matt Ryan. He certainly looks like he's been ripped off the pages of a comic book, and spends most of the episode claiming that he doesn't want to be involved. But he doth protest too much, me thinks, because all the while he says no, he's working towards yes. He's manic in his assertions, going from understated and believably confident, to overblown and yelly. Every time he started bellowing his emotions, I lost whatever respect I might have been building towards the character. This isn't the soft-spoken con-artist who could wander into Hell and bluff his way back out, this is a crazy guy at the back of the bus.

Maybe it was because it was a pilot, and they wanted to throw as much against the wall as they could, in hopes that the network would see something in the slosh that they could promote, but this episode was too littered with dangling plot threads, a smorgasbord of tangents for the series to explore, but none of the patience to establish the characters in any meaningful way so that we actually care in any of these plots pay off. The opening sequence sees Constantine in an asylum, and out again within ten minutes. We meet him, and Liv, and Chas and some menace to all three, before the first commercial break. Then it's rush-rush-rush to exposition city, as Constantine explains demons and a bunch of macguffins and even a magical it's-bigger-on-the-inside headquarters full of Easter eggs and tools of the trade, moving us at a break neck pace through a pilot plot and the Dummies Guide to Demonology, without slowing down or taking a breath, and by episode's end I found I didn't care about any of it.

The Liv character has been written out, meaning pretty much everything that happened in this episode was pointless. The only thing with any lasting effect is our introduction to the characters, and the characters were introduced so ineffectively that I'm left with an hour of nothingness where 10 o'clock last Friday used to be. Even Neil Marshal behind the camera was wasted, as he was given no material to work with to show off his industry-cred ability to make very little seem like quite a lot. there were moments throughout the episode, such as Constantine stepping out of the cab into the time-frozen rain. Moments where the episode slowed down, and for a moment I thought might actually explore one of the concepts it was introducing. Then it punched the throttle, and we're back to where we were.

I was hoping that this might be DC's chance to really impress us. To take one it's most emotionally complex properties and give us an adaptation that had some merit. I was hoping for something akin to Hannibal. Instead, it seems like what we're going to get is something we've already had for ten years, and that is Supernatural. Two guys, roaming the US (goodbye Piccadilly, so long Leicester Square) in a cab, performing exorcisms and foiling ghosts while an angel looks on. A worn-concept, horror procedural. So while I'm open to a divergence from the source material, because the TV show does need to be it's own thing, and evolution is important in the creative process, I'm disappointed in the laziness so far displayed by Cerone and Goyer, and DC, and NBC, despite the fact that we should have expected nothing else from any of them. This was an underwhelming episode that held a pinch of promise. But it's only a pilot, and it's almost always impossible to judge a series from it's first episode. So we'll see how next week goes.

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