Constantine Review: “Non Est Asylum” (Season 1, Episode 1)


We’ve already sat through the premieres of Gotham and The Flash, and new seasons of Arrow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and we’ve still got the premiere of iZombie and Netflix’s Daredevil to get through before the TV year is over. But now, it’s time for Constantine, NBC’s highly anticipated series which debuted tonight.

Based on the long-running DC Comics/Vertigo book Hellblazer, and the subject of a somewhat successful yet critically derided Keanu Reeves movie, NBC is hoping that this paranormal detective/master of the dark arts will make a fine Friday night companion for their established hit Grimm. In Constantine‘s favor is that it ably sets up an easy-to-replicate procedural-style format. The pilot is efficiently creepy, and star Matt Ryan seems at least engaging in the title role. But will Constantine prove as engaging as some of its fellow comic book series? That remains to be seen.

The pilot begins in Ravescar, a psychiatric hospital and current home for our hero John Constantine (Ryan). Looking to forget a recent incident where a child was killed mid-exorcism, Constantine’s subjecting himself to electro-shock, group therapy and the talking cure to try and cope, but he’s having minimal success. However, when a dear (dead) old friend sends him a message via possession of one of the patients, a warning about a girl in trouble, Constantine decides that returning to work may be the best therapy and departs to take on the forces of Hell once more… in Atlanta, GA!

We’re then introduced to Liv (Lucy Griffiths), who we shouldn’t get too used to because even though she’s introduced as the audience surrogate into the world of Constantine, she was replaced over the summer with another female character who will be brought into the show later on. For now, though, Liv has demon issues. Constantine’s old friend was her father, and even though he was never involved in her life, he nevertheless gave her an inheritance, his supernatural gift of seeing the hidden world around us and finding trouble by bleeding on to a map.

Constantine’s debt to Liv’s father Jasper means he has to keep her safe from this demonic threat. He receives help from his best mate Chas (Charles Halford), who’s Constantine’s old friend for his unusual capacity to literally not let death stop him, and Manny (Harold Perrineau), an angel who warns Constantine that all things supernatural are warming up for a major event, and Heaven’s looking for some game day players.

Constantine manages to save Liv with his dark arts mastery, despite an attempt by the demon Furcifer to trick Constantine into letting him go in exchange for the soul of the dead girl Astra. Furcifer is sent back to Hell with a warning that Constantine is coming for Astra, and any and all demons best stay out of his way. Liv, freaked out by the sight of, well, everything, makes a beeline for the California coast, but not before leaving Constantine a map of all supernatural hotspots across the United States. Manny is pleased that Constantine is now on Team Heaven, but disappointed that Liv won’t be sticking around. Constantine says that he’s better on his own, but hey, who would be crazy enough to come along for the ride? Cut to a mysterious woman obsessively drawing Constantine. Crazy enough for you, John?

For a pilot episode, Constantine gets the job done. The concept is fairly well introduced, the main cast is intriguing and the episode has plenty of tone and style thanks to The Descent and occasional Game of Thrones director Neil Marshall. It’s Marshall to whom the credit goes for giving the pilot a larger than TV look that might be hard to replicate weekly. Though for a big, initial adventure to drawn in viewers, perhaps that’s okay.

Constantine definitely needed a horror director’s touch though. The Constantine movie relied a lot of on CG effects and camera tricks, but if you’re dealing with demons, dark magic and other horror trappings, then you should exploit lighting, pacing, and human reaction. That’s not to say that TV Constantine is effects free of course, but the scene with Liv in the parking lot where a lot of the tension is built by Marshall’s patience and ability to string the audience along as we, and Liv, wait for the danger to present itself, is a director’s skill.