Review: NBC's 'Constantine' a tepid take on DC/Vertigo mystic hero
The TV version of John Constantine doesn't smoke.
Or, at least, we will never get to see him smoke. He carries a lighter, and from time to time, a scene will begin with John stubbing out a cigarette or in some other way suggesting that he was just enjoying the rich smell of tobacco right before we happened to turn up to stare at him. He can't smoke because his new TV show "Constantine" (10 p.m., NBC) is on a broadcast network — albeit a broadcast network that airs "Hannibal," which features some of the most graphic, disgusting imagery in the history of American popular culture.
In the grand scheme of things, this is not a big deal, and I'm sure a very fine television show could be made with a character very much like John Constantine — and maybe one with the genuine article — who is either not a smoker or never smokes when the camera's on him.
But with "Constantine" — a new interpretation of the long-running DC/Vertigo Comics mystical dabbler and all-around bastard — the absence of John's most physically self-destructive habit is symbolic of a larger issue. And as John will tell anyone who listens — particularly Liv (Lucy Griffiths), the potential young sidekick he grooms in the pilot episode — symbols have meaning, and when you take them away, you can take away the power they represent.
Constantine was previously the subject of a Keanu Reeves movie of the same name, and if nothing else, the TV show version, played by Matt Ryan, has a much closer resemblance to the version from the comics (whom artists Stephen Bissette and John Totleben modeled on rock star Sting). The show gets the broad strokes right: blonde hair (and stubble), British accent, rumpled trench coat, and many demons to fight. But the John Constantine of the comics — whether a supporting character to Swamp Thing or as the star of his own long-running series(*) — is a dangerous fellow to be around. In many ways, he's harder on his friends than on his enemies, and his motives are often less than selfless.
(*) First called "Hellblazer," now "Constantine" because it makes for better branding.
TV Constantine makes reference to how many of his friends die, but he doesn't seem especially dangerous or awful to be around. He's introduced in a sympathetic context where he's guilt-ridden over the banishment to Hell of someone he was trying to protect, and he spends most of the pilot either rescuing Liv or being her sarcastic but clearly decent guide to the world of angels (here represented by Harold Perrineau from "Lost") and demons. He is, in other words, roughly what you might expect from the network TV version of John Constantine: aesthetically scruffy, but with the emotional and thematic edges sanded off. There's the structure for a sturdy but unremarkable supernatural procedural (and companion piece to "Grimm"), but in the pilot, at least, producers David Goyer and Daniel Cerone aren't aiming for much more.
Of course, a pilot episode isn't always representative of a series, and this may be less representative than most. Even though the first hour is entirely about Constantaine recruiting Liv in his fight against evil, she will disappear after tonight because the producers decided they didn't like the character, but didn't have the budget to scrap the original pilot and start over; a scene at the end was reshot to explain why you won't be seeing Liv anymore, and there's a brief epilogue featuring Angélica Celaya as Zed, a supporting character from the comics, but it's largely unchanged.
NBC didn't make additional episodes available — even though it's one of the very last new network shows to premiere this fall — and it's possible that once Constantine is no longer in a position where he's playing mentor to a scared newbie to his world, he'll be rougher in spirit, and not just in appearance. Cerone and Goyer have no say over the cigarettes — that edict comes from a higher power — but hopefully they have the ability to beef up the part of the character that the cigarettes represent. A "Constantine" that superficially represents the character that Bissette, Totleben and Alan Moore created back in the '80s can function as the lead of a generic paranormal mystery show in 2014. But if Cerone and Goyer have been given free(ish) reign with the character, they might as well use him as right as NBC standards and practices will allow them to.
Where there's smoke, there's fire. Where smoking's not allowed... well, here's hoping there's another way for "Constantine" to generate some heat.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org