This Friday, NBC will be premiering the supernatural comic book show Constantine, and for many comic book fans, the expectations are high. Of 2014’s new comic book shows, Constantine is the only one going for a dark and gritty tone. The Flash is traditionally comic book colorful and fun (and I am completely hooked on it), and so far, Gotham is the Penguin Show with opinions ranging from campy joy to raging hatred. TV needs a cranky, tortured anti-hero like John Constantine.
At New York Comic Con, I caught an early screening of “Non Est Asylum,” the pilot episode of Constantine. It was optimal conditions with Main Stage 1-D packed full of excited fans, eager to see John Constantine in the flesh over two weeks before the premiere date. Even at optimal conditions, I wasn’t a fan of the episode. There are so many problems that I can’t give it higher than a C letter grade. Despite its problems, however, I hope that viewers and the network gives it a chance to find its footing.
First up, the bad. Liv Aberdine (Lucy Griffiths) is an annoyingly passive character. Everything happens to her, and I got no sense of who she is or what she wants aside from not getting killed by hell demons. In all the scenes with Liv and John, I was getting a strong Indiana Jones and Willie dynamic from them, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. She isn’t as outright obnoxious as Willie, but she is almost as useless in a tight spot.
Another moment worth noting from the episode is the introduction of Ritchie Simpson, played by Jeremy Davies. I love Jeremy Davies. He was fantastic on Lost, and his proposal scene in the basement of J.C. Penney’s was one of the funniest moments in Secretary. He has played Southern before as Dickie Bennett on Justified, and I know he is fully capable. I really, really love Jeremy Davies, so when I say that his Southern accent on Constantine is truly awful, I mean it. It is beyond understanding. I laughed out loud involuntarily when I heard it. Considering Davies’ previous track record, I wonder if I should place the blame on Davies or on the director who heard that accent and said, “Sounds great, Jeremy.”
The episode also falls into a common problem with pilot episodes which is the tendency to tell, not show. Characters feel the need to spell out exactly how they are feeling through dialogue instead of letting their actions speak for themselves. It makes sense because the audience is being introduced to these characters for the first time, but good TV writers can introduce the world and the characters in it without dumping so much exposition all at once.
Now, here is why I think Constantine could move past these problems and be a really good show.
A show like Constantine lives or dies by its leading man, and Matt Ryan is a great pick for John Constantine. He is likeable and snarky while still being damaged and rough around the edges. In the pilot episode, he gets plenty of laughs, especially during the opening scenes at the mental institution, but he also gets to show what haunts his character’s conscience, the girl he couldn’t save. It is a broad emotional range for the pilot episode.