In keeping with the current superhero craze, the Television industry has debuted a glut of comic-inspired programming. And the results have been somewhat mixed. The Flash on the CW has been an unquestioned success, churning out episodes just as good as that of its parent series, [Arrow](series:720988), and easily one of the best new shows on TV, period. And then you have Gotham on FOX, which while starting off a little shaky, has quickly found its legs and has been able to balance its increasing roster of Batman-centric characters with a procedural cop drama, making it somewhat unique in the overall scheme of things.
But then there has been NBC’s [Constantine](movie:874314), which hasn’t been near as successful as either of its contemporary series, in terms of both ratings and critical praise. Critics have been decidedly middling on the series, often praising its performances, especially from Matt Ryan, who plays the title character, but citing poor stories and a lack of coherent direction as the main issues. Of the pilot, Russ Fischer of SlashFilm stated that,
“John Constantine is a tough character to put on screen, and the Constantine pilot constantly struggles with finding its take on the character.”
And that is not only a central issue with the pilot, but in the first three episodes as a whole. Is Constantine the dashing, yet closed off, lothario, or is he a scarred, emotionally wrecked protagonist that is perpetually on the edge? It is possible for him to be both of those, of course, and Ryan can play both of those quite well, but as a whole, the show has bounced back and forth between the two with no real balance. That leaves a main character the audience not only doesn’t know what to do with, but isn’t sure whether to invest in.
Another issue is the formula the show has taken, i.e the “Monster of the Week”. This is a proven method, with countless shows using it over the years. Even The Flash has used it to a modicum of success. But for some reason, with Constantine, it comes across as lacking, and even lazy.
The reason the formula works for [The Flash](series:1068303) so much better is simple. The Flash established the world in a very coherent and meaningful way from the very start. Even without all the help it has received from Arrow, The Flash has created a world that is believable and has heart, which allows the audience to buy in with greater ease. More than that, all of the supporting characters not only make sense, but they get fleshed out from the beginning.
Constantine, on the other hand, took the opposite approach. Nearly all of the focus has been on the lead and, meaningless in the long run, single-episode supporting players. Take, for instance, “The Darkness Beneath”, the series 2nd episode, which is by far the worst. This episode was saddled with the task of introducing a new female lead, one episode after we were introduced to a female lead with a far more interesting story and connection to Constantine, if somewhat underwhelming mystical powers when compared with Zed, the new girl.
So, instead of spending time building and establishing this new female lead with Ryan’s Constantine, we are forced to hear about the ham-fisted politics of a dying coal town and the trivialities of the marital lives of the sad couples within the aforementioned town. Silly plot, mixed with weak course correcting from the first episode and almost complete ignoring the rest of the established players led to a disappointing 42 minutes of television.
The last major issue with Constantine is the overreliance on the unseen past. That is to say, the series repeatedly tells the audience how AWESOME Constantine was, back in the day. He went on all these bad ass missions and was a supernatural hero, once upon a time. And these things are all well and good, and can do a lot to build a character, because you see how they got to where they are now. The problem in this case is that we never actually see it. The show is playing like a flashback program, ala Lost or Arrow, but it is bypassing the flashback. In so doing it commits the cardinal sin of visual storytelling: telling not showing.
Take Arrow, for instance, arguably the best comic-inspired show on television (Walking Dead fans relax, I said arguably). That show uses the flashback technique almost perfectly because generally, when they look back into the past it furthers the story. They don’t just do it to do it, or to say, “Hey, look how great Oliver was!” The flashbacks in Arrow create context that not only deepens the drama of the story, but aids the viewer in creating meaning.
Constantine desperately wants to make those connections. They want the audience to fall in love with Constantine, to have a background for context and to care about the stories being told. However, everything is being done in such a nonsensical fashion, that, while we can see those desires as evident, they don’t actually translate.
I say all of this to point out that while there are some serious errors currently happening with the series, it does indeed have potential, and with a few tweaks, it could be great. Specifically, there are two things that could be done to really tighten up this series and push it to the next level.
First, give the supporting characters more character. That is to say, elaborate on who they are. Why is Harold Perrineau’s angel so passive aggressive towards Constantine? Moreover, why is an angel even there in the first place? What is his deal? And what about Chas? How exactly do his powers work? Why would he bother staying in touch with and helping an admitted prick, such as Constantine? By defining the characters who surround the main character, you not only provide a well-balanced cast, but provide insight into all of the different identities. There is truth in the statement that who we choose to associate says something about us.
And secondly, allow the stories to unfold without the contrivances of past, unseen events. The show needs to focus on what is happening RIGHT NOW. But right now the overall story is taking a backseat to the person Constantine used to be. We don’t know that guy. We can’t. Take comics out of the equation and focus solely on this interpretation. The audience needs to be given a reason to care about him in the present, to understand why his struggles are important. When that happens, then delve into the past.
In fact, the last episode that aired, Á Feast of Friends”, was, perhaps, the best episode yet and attempted a little bit of a course correct for the series. Without spoilers, it brought up Constantine’s past in a meaningful and relatable way, actually gave his supporting cast something to do that was both relevant and enhanced their characters. The episode wasn’t perfect, as the story was still a little on the goofy side, but it was a marked improvement.
And that is a very apt analogy for the show as a whole. It’s not perfect, but it is, slowly but surely, getting better. It definitely has the potential to be good, and much like Marvel’s [Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.](series:722469) last year, which took its sweet time in getting good. Unfortunately, Constantine doesn’t have the Disney machine backing it, so it may not have as long. But it has a lot of potential and it is definitely worth a shot if you have been on the fence about trying it out. Do you agree? Sound off below!
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