Article by: Joseph O’Neill
Magic and confidence tricks have a lot in common. Both require information, planning, contacts with outside players and being absolutely certain in what you’re setting out to make happen.
John Constantine is the quintessential example of this in fiction. Approach a mark that in normal circumstances could crush you like a bug and then through manipulation of their ego and known M.O. get what you need from them. From John’s perspective a CEO and the devil himself are in the same category and ripe for exploitation.
Around this time last year NBC had a go at a television adaption of the infamous comic book con artist that lasted an unlucky 13 episodes despite some very vocal fans. They did their best to save the show and although that didn’t work, they did manage to show enough love that Matt Ryan has been put back in the trench coat and will appear as John in an upcoming episode of CW’s comic book show “Arrow”.
So with it being Halloween time, the character characteristically cheating death once again, and me being the biggest fan of the character you’re ever liable to meet, I’m going to jump at the chance to talk about NBC’s Constantine. I’ve done my best to separate the Constantine I know from the comics and NBC’s version, and I’ve been moderately successful — but not enough if I’m going to be honest with all of you — so what I’m going to do is review this primarily as an adaption. What I thought worked, what I know didn’t, and what could have been done to perhaps save the production from Damnation of Cancellation.
What makes John and the circumstances he talks his way through so captivating is magic permeates everything; Not just subject matter, but even the presentation of story.
I repeat myself, but Magic is about the harnessing and limitation of information, knowledge, and ideas. In that way, magic is not dissimilar to art. Despite this, there was an overload of exposition in a number of episodes.
Another recurring issue throughout the show: John and his cohorts ( Zed and Chas) are involved in some fantastic and awful circumstances. But more often than not, it falls flat and fails to leave any lasting impact on the viewer. It’s freak of the week much of the time. There are few personal stakes for our protagonists.
A notable exception to accusation I’ve just laid down is the episode “A Feast of Friends”.
An old friend of John’s named Gary Lester comes into town carrying a bottle with a demon and mistakenly unleashes it when searched in the airport.
It possess people and they are overcome with insane desire to eat. People eat until their stomachs burst, sticking their hands in deep friers for the food in them and when all else fails turn to autocanibalism. Its about as unsettling as it sounds. But this is not the primary focus of the episode and not what makes it so great.
Gary is a drug addict, a loser and he idolizes John. John knows all of these things and in an intense final few minutes, uses all of this to manipulate Gary into sacrificing himself by letting the demon possess him. He then seals it within his OWN body, causing the demon to slowly consume himself (and itself) from the inside out.
John is revealed to be the absolute bastard he is.
Both Constantine and Hellblazer were at their best when the stories didn’t allow the fantastic to override the seemingly mundane.
The “Rake at the Gates of Hell” comic arc is a great example. Satan himself seeks vengeance on Constantine. Despite all of his talent, charm, and bravado, it is obvious John is outmatched. He desperately runs about looking for a way out…
An interesting concept on its own for sure but writer Garth Ennis takes it a step further by having all of this take place during a Race riot going on in London.
We’re introduced to characters who have some interaction with John but its mostly a separate story used primarily as a framing device. Exploring guilt, powerlessness against a hostile force and how small and petty people be.
Political and social commentary were ever present in Hellblazer. John Constantine was a character born out of the zeitgeist of the Thatcher administration, which I suppose leads to my biggest disappointment with NBC’s Constantine:
Hellblazer wasn’t just about monsters and magic.
It was about man’s inhumanity to man.
It was about steadfast rebellion against those who might put themselves over you.
John being an aging punk in the show and comic were not just there for flavor.
They served to further a theme. Or it should have anyhow.
So much of the show boiled John down to his superficial elements, cashing in on the growing comic book TV market. What it comes down to is something nearly everyone said from the start: Constantine was on the wrong network. It upsets me because it is obvious the entire cast and crew of Constantine loved making the show and did their best to work around Executive mandated nonsense. Most notably, they kept sneaking in ways of showing John as a pack-a-day smoker risking pissing off the FCC as the show went on. Matt Ryan’s performance went from passable to great as the show progressed.
Despite everything negative I’ve said up until this point, Constantine was finally finding its footing. Perhaps not as a perfect Hellblazer adaptation, but as its own television show it’s enjoyable enough. Ultimately, a character as punk-fucking-rock as John Constantine being subject to the whims of the monolith that is NBC doesn’t really gel, but it’s a shame it didn’t continue on.
Episodes to check out
103. “The Devil’s Vinyl”
“A Robert Johnson-esque character was claimed by hell while recording a blues record. .
They say the recording contains the devil’s voice. The record resurfaces and there is a conflict with a voodoo priest to obtain it”
Uses established southern Lore and urban legend
Music plays an important role much like it did in Hellblazer
104. “A Feast of Friends”
Previously mentioned above and named for the Door’s Song.
An adaptation of Hellblazer 1&2
107. “Blessed are the Damned”
A Southern preacher dies and comes back with an angel feather and the ability to perform miracles
Very Gothic Americana. One of the few episodes to make the most of its location in tandem with theming. Also incorporates the twists, turns, and cons one might expect from a Hellblazer story.
108 & 109. “The Saint of Last Resorts Pt1 &2”
John is called to Mexico by an old lover now living as a Nun. Something is kidnapping newborn children. While dealing with this John ends up in Prison. — And worse.
The Big bad is finally brought to the forefront. Some good character moments in this. Not all of it works, but the cliffhanger between episodes is quite a moment, and its resolution in the following episode is even better.
110. Quid Pro Quo
One of the Secondary characters – Chas – gets an episode dedicated to him.
An evil mage is stealing the souls of young children for his own purposes.
One of which is the soul of Chas’s estranged daughter.
Chas is one of the most enduring supporting characters in Hellblazer and one of the few that manages to survive extended contact with John. Another episode that focuses more on personal stakes and digs into the relationship between our protagonist and his best mate.
I particularly like this episode because its clear that John isn’t always right in how he deals with conflict and once again proves himself to be a bit of an asshole. Solid Characterization.
113. “Waiting for the Man”
A Satanist is luring young girls to be his undead child brides.
The final episode. Named for the Lou Reed song And An Adaptation of Hellblazer #4.
A lot of loose ends are left here but I suppose any early cancellation can lead to that.
A Solid episode. Arguably the best one. Some genuinely creepy moments, unsettling twists and great performances from the entire cast.