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.
"You do that a lot, you know," says Liv. "Deflect emotions with humour. Like the morally ambiguous male lead of a TV show." #ConstantineHaving 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.
— Hell Tailor (@Hello_Tailor) October 25, 2014
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.
Somewhere in the USA, a teen boy just decided to start using the word "squire" because he decided it sounded cool & British in #Constantine.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.
— Hell Tailor (@Hello_Tailor) October 25, 2014
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"