“Constantine” shouldn’t be on network television; it needs a shadowy, graphic atmosphere, the kind that Netflix will provide for the “Daredevil” series debuting next year. It’s the kind of show that is fostered in darkness and will thus thrive on darkness; the occult, demonology, Hell itself — topics that should be dealt with certain a seriousness, albeit with some levity thrown in, the sort of combination that can make you squirm in your seat yet dares you to look away.
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We get this within the first 10 minutes of the pilot — John Constantine, played by Welsh actor Matt Ryan (“Layer Cake”), voluntarily receives electro-shock treatment in an insane asylum. As he talks with the head psychologist, his eyes exude pain, confusion, fear. This “master of the dark arts,” as his business cards read, also proves to have quite a wit and sarcastic bite. Slowly but surely, it is revealed Constantine once fought demons, but has since lost his faith; he places himself in the asylum so that he might realize demons are figments of his imagination. Nonetheless, the possession of a patient at the asylum convinces him to get back in the game and journey to … Atlanta, GA.
Oh, Atlanta: home of lousy sports teams, Waffle House, large studio tax breaks and certainly one of the least visually appealing, least recognizable cities in America. That the show is so quickly supplanted from the gray umbrage of England to this sunny Southern locale foreshadows the impending collapse of narrative compulsion, which it almost gleefully provides in the form of actress Lucy Griffiths (“True Blood”) as Liv Aberdeen. It is no hyperbole when I say that Griffiths delivers one of the worst TV performances ever. Ever.
And suddenly, “Constantine” isn’t so absorbing. It adopts a mentor-mentee relationship — one with zero chemistry, between Constantine and Liv — with Constantine trying to both save Liv from a demon that has her marked for damnation and teach her how to tap into her supernatural power of seeing souls trapped between our world and the next. It glosses over so much exposition, so many rules of Constantine’s world, as though we are expected to know of the conflict between angels and demons, of human intervention with the occult, etc. before the show begins.
Yeah, it’s out there, but not as out there as the decision to even cast Aberdeen in the role. Her acting is so naïve, so childlike, so completely unprofessional that it threatens to actually derail the entire episode. Aesthetic choices, too, are sometimes questionable, as with the contrived wide-angle aerial shot of Constantine, arms outstretched as he shouts to angels in the skies.
But despite all of these glaring issues, there is hope for “Constantine.” Pilots rarely, if ever, deliver the full extent of what a show is to encompass. “Constantine” benefits drastically from a strong casting choice in Ryan, who balances inner turmoil with exceptional wit and comic timing. A final showdown between Constantine and a demon that takes a human form as a sort of dark-Constantine is actually quite watchable. Couple the charismatic Ryan with some impressive visual effects, add the fact that Griffiths’ character has already been replaced (yes!); these are the foundations of a quality TV show. The producers have demonstrated their awareness of the show’s problems and willingness to fix them; if showrunner David S. Goyer (“Man of Steel”) can inject some of that “The Dark Knight” attitude, then “Constantine” just might become something special.