In the quarter-century since The DC/Vertigo horror comic Hellblazer began its run, the television landscape has changed to include many shows that follow a similar “occult detective” format: Supernatural, Sleepy Hollow, and the (sadly short-lived) Dresden Files, to name just a few. But fans of John Constantine have waited a long time for a series featuring our favorite anti-hero. Time will tell if NBC can finally pull it off, but the pilot episode seems at least promising.
The television series immediately fixes a few things that the 2005 film starring Keanu Reeves inexplicably changed. Matt Ryan is closer to what we expect Constantine to look and sound like—blond, Scouse, and snarky—a perfect match to the comic. Charles Halford plays Constantine’s best friend, Chas Chandler, and immediately helps erase the memory of Shia LeBoeuf’s too-young, too goofy portrayal in the film—though as in the movie, this Chas has an American accent, and his cab’s steering wheel is on the left. He also seems to have remarkable healing powers. In this episode, Chas gets both impaled and electrocuted by a possessed power line, but pops back up later:
Liv: “But you’re … you … you died!”
Chas: Not exactly. It’s … complicated.”
John: “There’s a reason Chas is my oldest friend—he has survival skills.”
We know of nothing from the first 20 years or so of the comic that explains why Chas survived (notwithstanding a possible hint in the teaser tail of the film), but we’re glad of it, nonetheless. Constantine’s friends rarely live long, so Chas being extra-hard to kill in the series seems like it could be an interesting and useful added element.
While the show is set in the US, and apparently in the present day, we get a quick (actually somewhat rushed) first act that takes place in Northern England’s Ravenscar Asylum (essentially Hellblazer’s version of Arkham). The act draws from the events of issue #8, “Intensive Care” (1988), which is in part a flashback to the early 1980s, and issue #11, “Newcastle” (also a flashback). Although the timeline is compressed, pivotal events and characters from John’s past that will provide motivation for his future actions are briefly mentioned: the demon Nergal, the young lost soul Astra, and an only slightly altered version of the horrific events at Newcastle that both demon and child were involved in.
The look, feel, and effects of the show do a pretty good job of emulating the bleak, creepy landscape of Hellblazer. Twenty-first-century Atlanta, where Constantine ends up after leaving the asylum, cannot be made to have the same emotional effect as Thatcher-era England (the time and place fans of the comic associate most with John Constantine). But as with Supernatural, the show is sure to crisscross the country as well as spend some time in other realms altogether.
Some effects are better than others, and we often found the practical effects to be more effective than the CGI ones—a wildly thrashing body bag in the back of a medical examiner’s van, for example, was scarier than a parade of millions of cockroaches swarming across the walls of a mental institution. Although some comic fans have expressed disappointment that the show is unlikely to be as horrific on network TV as they’d like (Grantland amusingly called the show “Heckblazer”), we happen to prefer the most shocking violence and gore to remain constrained to the comic book page, and without the startling sound effects. What may take more getting used to than the milder horror is the absence of Constantine’s ubiquitous Silk Cuts—chain-smoking is not just an important affectation of John’s character, but also of his backstory (as in the “Dangerous Habits” storyline [1994, issues #41–46], bits of which are included in the 2005 film). But there’s no smoking on network TV, so Constantine can only sadly flick his Zippo instead (although at the end of the episode you can catch him putting out a smoke in a bar ashtray).
Fans of the TV series Lost might be pleased to see two former members of that cast back on television. Harold Perrineau (Michael on Lost) appears as the angel “Manny” (short for Emmanuel, we imagine). Although there’s no Manny in the comic canon, we are nevertheless quickly reminded that angels in the DC/Vertigo universe (as with on Supernatural) are—well, they’re not really “good guys”; let’s leave it at that. Jeremy Davies (Daniel Faraday on Lost) plays Ritchie Simpson, a character similar to the books, but now an American, like Chas. We also get a teaser glimpse at the end of the episode of a woman frantically drawing pictures of Constantine in her illustration-littered flat, who readers of the comic might correctly identify as Zed, a character who first appeared way back in issue #4 (1988), written by Jamie Delano. (The show apparently went through some adjustments between this pilot and the following episodes, which included losing Liv, a central character in this episode. We were pleased to see this audience-surrogate wander off before the end of the show rather than becoming a sidekick companion figure.)
The show has a lot of promise. The demons and ghosts are pretty stinking scary, and Matt Ryan does a great job of convincing us he’s our John Constantine. We’re very interested to see what changes will have been made to the show between the pilot and the following episodes. As Hellblazer, the Vertigo imprint’s longest running title, finally ended its remarkably long run last year, morphing into the New 52 DC title Constantine, it will be exciting to revisit one of the most influential characters in the supernatural/horror/detective fiction genres in both a new book and a new medium. Finally.