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Friday, 5 December 2014

The three main problems with NBC's 'Constantine.'


After six episodes, Constantine has graduated past "unwatchably bad" and settled into a network TV formula. It's better than it was at the start, but it's definitely not good.

Aside from obvious issues like clunky dialogue, Constantine has three serious ongoing problems:
  1. It's virtually indistinguishable from other genre shows of the same type, ie Supernatural.
  2. Both of the supporting characters, Chas and Zed, are completely pointless.
  3. It's often racist.
There's no better example of problem #1 than last week's episode, "Rage of Caliban." The plot was an unimaginative spin on "young child possessed by demons" horror movie tropes, practically begging for some kind of genre-savvy humor. It even takes place on Halloween, and the guest characters are a suburban family so bland they'd probably be rejected from a cereal commercial for being too generic.


Out of six episodes, only two have really felt individual to this show: "The Devil's Vinyl" (a reasonably interesting riff on the urban legend of a blues musician selling his soul to the devil) and "A Feast of Friends", which was adapted from Hellblazer #1 and had a satisfyingly unpleasant ending.

Every other episode is either painfully predictable, or reliant on familiar genre cliches. No wonder Constantine's ratings are dropping: It's just retreading the same ground that Supernatural has been covering for the past decade, along with a handful others like Grimm, Sleepy Hollow, and Teen Wolf. Constantine has failed to carve out a niche of its own.


Problem #2 is a weird one. I've seen plenty of shows where one or two characters felt superfluous, but this is so much worse. Chas and Zed are so unnecessary that several episodes have to write one of them out of the story. And when they are onscreen, they often have nothing substantial to do.
Supposedly, Zed is following Constantine because he can teach her how to control her powers. In reality, her purpose is to fulfill the show's female character quota and give Constantine someone to talk to. Instead of being a fully developed character, she's more like Constantine's personal assistant -- a role that's already filled by Chas.

Chas shares Zed's exposition sidekick duties, which sometimes falls flat because unlike Zed, he isn't new to the supernatural/exorcist lifestyle. If he's already experienced in dealing with ghosts and monsters, then why have him ask Constantine to explain a simple concept like ley lines? (That wasn't even the clumsiest exposition scene in last week's episode, by the way. The worst was when Constantine literally explained what demonic possession is, implying that the writers think we've never heard a ghost story before.)

Instead of having two full-time sidekicks, they'd be better off with Constantine as a solo protagonist backed up by recurring guest stars. You know, like the comic.


Problem #3 is already unsalvageable. Constantine has two white male showrunners, and for some reason they decided to make the primary antagonist a black man who is both a crime boss and a vodou priest. It's difficult for this not to have racist undertones, particularly given Hollywood's history of portraying vodou as alien, dangerous, and evil. Which is a pity, because Papa Midnite is the best character in the show. The actor has real screen presence, and adds a sense of power and charisma to a role that could easily have been a total trainwreck.

Combine the problematic depictions of vodou with Constantine's other moments of racist subtext, and the end result is disastrous. From the hideous "black gypsy magic" scene in episode 2 to the introduction of casually exoticized characters like the African shaman in "A Feast of Friends," they've already gone way past the racism limit for a tone-deaf US network TV show.


Constantine isn't the worst show I've ever seen, but I certainly wouldn't be watching it if I wasn't a Hellblazer fan with a morbid fascination for where the show is going. There are a few rays of hope now and then -- the convincing physicality of Matt Ryan's performance, and Papa Midnite's role as a not-quite-bad-guy antagonist -- but in general, it's depressingly lacklustre.

18 comments:

  1. You must really have nothing better to do then watch TV shows and write hateful reviews about them, don't you? What are you trying to achieve here? Please do your research before writing about comic book based shows. Don't post hate in the tags either, it's quite rude darling.

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    1. Uh, this isn't even what I would call hateful? There are no ad hominem attacks going on here, just a summary of the flaws.

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    2. Hi there, welcome to the internet! You must be new here. Hope you're enjoying your time browsing these web logs or "blogs" and remember to top up your AOL dial-up internet card!

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  2. I laughed so hard at this first comment I had to leave this one. :D Thanks for giving me a good summation since I'd been wondering about this show but wasn't going to subject myself to its possible horrors without fair warning.

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    1. lol yes, i love the condescending "darling" on that first comment, a classic.

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  3. I think your summation of this is brilliant. Exactly my thoughts as a hellbazer fan. I really tried with this show and to get into the characters but other than the powerful acting of the constantine character and papa midnight,theyve really bastardised the comic; when i thought the movie was bad...this is worse as i thought there were gonna do it right when i saw the casting for john...then it spun off somewhere where i dunno where to find it. Its just morbid curiousity that keeps me now.

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    1. Thanks! :) It's just so full of disappointing choices for an adaptation where the showrunners are both self-proclaimed fans of the comics... very odd.

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  4. Considering that Papa Midnite is virtually the same on the show as in the comic, I can't imagine how you can like the one, and call the other racist. Personally, I love the show. It's not as good as Supernatual, but nothing is, within this genre. I'm getting tired of how illogical and mean spirited you are. Time to stop reading your blog!

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    1. Actually while I've read a lot of Hellblazer comics, I haven't read the main Papa Midnite storylines, so I can't really comment on his depiction in the comics. But I'm told it's pretty racist in Hellblazer as well.

      My criticism of his role in the show isn't by comparison to the comics anyway. I just want the show to be *good*, and in many cases it would be improved by copying the tone of the comics more accurately, but that doesn't mean a completely direct adaptation would be a good idea or even possible in the framework of mainstream episodic TV.

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    2. Are you the same guy/girl who's been making the exact same complaint on every Constantine post on this blog? When are you going to make good on your promise to leave?

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  5. ummmm manny and papa midnite are not antagonists per se, and uh JOHN CONSTANTINE IS NO ANGEL so, he's not exactly redeemable, its a great show and has and zed are in the comics (have you read them???) and zed's past plays a huge factor later on I'm scratching my head as to your summation

    its so not racist, at all, the two actors playing Papa Midnite and Manny are PHENOMENAL, fan favorites and probably steal the show more than Constantine himself, so this is so funny for me to read.

    and i mean if you're gonna about whine about racism as far as I'm concerned, grimm, and supernatural are predominately white characters, so...Constantine have many characters of various cultures and races and you're gonna call it racist??? wow.

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    1. my criticism here isn't that papa midnite is a "bad guy," it's that the show's portrayal of vodou is problematic, and there are several episodes that include racist subtext -- or in the case of episode 2, are based on a blatantly racist stereotype. i agree that the actor playing Papa Midnite is great, but that just means... he's a good actor. it doesn't change his role in the show or in the wider context of hollywood's history of using vodou as shorthand for ~exotic foreign dark magic~ in fantasy/horror fiction.

      as for Manny, i know the actor is widely respected for his other work, but he hasn't really been given anything to do in this show except show up once every couple of episodes and make an ominous speech before vanishing again.

      Supernatural also has a history of being racist and VERY sexist, so i'm definitely not holding it up as the gold standard here. But it's ridiculous to say that Constantine isn't racist because it includes characters of "various cultures and races," because what we ACTUALLY see is... a show with a white, male, antiheroic protagonist who is given the bulk of the screentime and is the POV character, coming up against characters such as:

      a black man who is a vodou crime boss and talks to the skull of his dead sister
      a Japanese spirit whose main role is to kill people while asking if she's pretty. (this is based on a real ghost story but it's never explained in the show.)
      an African shaman who guides Constantine through a magical drug trip
      a woman whose ~gypsy heritage~ allows her to raise spirits from the dead and kill a bunch of people in her town.

      Aside from Papa Midnite, none of these characters are given much personality or background of their own, and are instead just props in Constantine's story. It's difficult to compliment this show for including characters of color when those characters are founded on damaging stereotypes.

      P.S. I have read the comics and the Zed in this show bears no resemblance to the one in the comics. She's a consistently two-dimensional character and her role is still unclear.

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  6. I decided to give this one a wiiiide berth when one of the showrunners made a point of saying that in this version, John Constantine was going to be 100% heterosexual.

    Nothing I've heard about it since has given me reason to regret that decision.

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  7. hi I'm sorry this isn't related to Constantine but I love your costume analyses, would you ever consider doing a post about Peaky Blinders if you've seen it? I love that show
    :)

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  8. The Papa Midnite character shouldn't even be a Vodou priest. Hell, he shouldn't be a priest, period. It's apparent that his gig is basically the practice of magic, not the practice of religion. And Vodou is a religion, not a form of magic. If a movie like "THE SKELETON KEY" can get that right nine years ago, why couldn't "CONSTANTINE"?

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  10. #1 Most of Supernatural was based off of Hellblazer(Constantine's comic).

    #2 I agree, I wish Chas and Zed had more screen time and were together with Constantine more often (like "Team Arrow" in Arrow)

    #3 Papa Midnite is not the villian. Midnite and Constantine only work together or against each other when there is a massive benefit to them, otherwise they are mutual.

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