The first episode of NBC’s Constantine, an adaptation of Vertigo’s Hellblazer comic series, was directed by Neil Marshall, and in theory, the filmmaker behind The Descent and Doomsday is a perfect match for the comic’s grim, sardonic subject matter. That would be, of course, if the series had any tonal interest in its source material, which follows freelance, chain-smoking exorcist John Constantine (Matt Ryan) on a long stroll through hell on Earth, as he encounters and disposes of demons roaming our world unseen by the naked eye. Ryan’s Constantine runs on the same rampant self-deprecation as the character in the comics, but there’s no effort to really convey the hurt, grief, and loss that roused his pickled worldview, making his feigned self-torment seem like nothing more than a bid at what one might call “edginess.”
The Constantine depicted here comes off as both cocky and a bit too self-assured to sell the hardened, prickly exorcist who’s tangled with Beelzebub and all manner of ghost and ghoul. In short, the character comes off as too cool to be genuinely troubled, and Constantine similarly feels as if it’s putting on airs. As the series begins, Constantine is staying at an asylum of his own accord, receiving shock treatment in a bid to forget a previous encounter with a powerful demon, a battle that ended in the death of a young child. He’s spurred back into the exorcism racket by a possessed patient, who’s accompanied by a swarm of scattering bugs and who notifies Constantine that a demon is now after Liv (Lucy Griffiths), the daughter of his late colleague. This sequence is noisy, but not even remotely scary, due largely to the fact that the titular protagonist seems resolutely over the whole scenario the minute he sees what’s going on. In fact, he spends most of his time with the ghostly oracle sarcastically quipping about the ordeal. As written, this familiarly “spooky” sequence is nothing more than a barely veiled mechanism to keep the story moving and get Constantine back out on the streets.
Indeed, the turns of the convoluted plot and the thick-as-a-brick backstories of the largely dull, undetailed characters are all that seem to matter to the show’s writers. The first episode does little more than introduce Constantine, Chas (Charles Halsford), his quasi-immortal sidekick, and Liv. Most of what’s said between these characters is expository, and none of this talk yields any insights into their interior lives. There are plenty of explosions, growling voices, and phantasms on display, but they’re all ineffectual, often appearing to simply reiterate that “something” is coming, whether that something is the end of days, a great demon, or a gaggle of baby chickens. Harold Perrineau’s Manny, an archangel of sorts, may have bright yellow eyes and large, black wings, but he only serves to remind Constantine of his vague duty to expel demons and protect the imprecisely important Liv. Even the use of songs such as Social Distortion’s rollicking cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” do nothing but suggest a macabre, cynical temperament that, as a series, Constantine has only a mild, fleeting interest in.