One of DC’s most successful comics from their Vertigo line, Hellblazer, has come off the page in a new television series on the NBC network under the name Constantine, in what has so far been one of the most fun and accurate depictions of its source material. Though I enjoyed the 2005 movie of the same title, many fans did not. I can promise readers though that this incarnation is nothing like that movie, and unlike most of the other shows on television right now. John Constantine is the titular character, hiding a true humanitarian under the guise of a chain-smoking, con man, occultist—who is usually called a bastard by any unfortunate enough to know him. His exists in a dark world, full of tormented souls, powerful spirits, and bad magic, where no one is safe from Hell’s influence.
“My name is John Constantine. I am the one whosteps on the shadows, all trench coat and arrogance. I’ll drive your demons away, kick ‘em in the bullocks, and spit on themwhen they’redown, leaving only a nod and a wisecrack.”
Constantine is gripping from its intro; a short—and anything but sweet—visual of the damned suffering after a burning title, setting the tone perfectly for the series. The first episode finds our hero in a mental institution under his own forced exile, after recent events had gone horribly wrong and cost a young girl her soul. Darkness is rising though, and John Constantine may be one of the few people who can stop it, along with Chas, Zed, and Manny. Constantine is many things, colorful, vivid, violent, and a bit of a tease with its DC Comics references, but the most important thing it has done is figuring out how to be a freak of the week show that does not feel like one, and still works.
One of the best compliments I can give a television show is that I get lost in it, because it does not happen often. The breaks between episodes feel more like smooth transitions. I see story arcs reemerge or references to past plots pop back up, and I am immediately sucked back into the story. There are less forgettable episodes, while each one adds something to the overall world building. Even the weakest episode in my opinion, The Darkness Beneath, has a lot to offer, as the overarching story and smaller plot points weave together without one taking away from the other. Tension is used well in this show. There are threats, large and small, but a feeling that something much more terrifying is just waiting around the corner; as well as the sinking feeling that any of these characters are in real danger, and could be killed off violently.
Characterization is another thing this show excels at. Matt Ryan nails the character of John Constantine; I know, because I want to see him save people and slap him at the same time. The character is unlikable, and shares many traits with the villains of the show, if not for his pension for doing good. His background in the comics is bleak; everything from drug addiction to being demon possessed, and it is usually only his powers of luck and cunning that he gets by. It is his friends that humanize the character, but John abuses and uses them, with most of his associates ending up dead. So much of this comes across incredibly well in the show. Constantine does not want to die, because his soul is in jeopardy, and there is a great episode where this fear makes him much more sympathetic.