Yes, Constantine Is a Show About a Man Who Fights Demons, But I Didn’t Believe a Second of It

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Photo: NBC

I didn't believe a second of NBC's Constantine, adapted from DC Comics' Hellblazer series.

That might seem a strange complaint given that the story concerns an exorcist/demonologist (Matt Ryan) who travels the world, battling demons who've possessed innocent mortals while trying to right a tragic mistake. It must be a tone thing and a performance thing: The show's got the atmosphere and visuals things nailed down.

As directed by Neil Marshall (The Descent, Game of Thrones) and overseen by executive producers Daniel Cerone (Dexter, The Mentalist) and David S. Goyer (Dark City, and way too many comics adaptations to list here), the first installment, which airs Friday night at 10 p.m., doesn't lack for production value. Possessed people swing and twirl through the air, hordes of cockroaches skitter, the ground opens up, the sky goes dark with purplish cumulus clouds, and a horned demon lunges from a hellmouth, beckoning towards an innocent soul. There are a few effectively staged moments of suspense, and the opening sequence, set in a mental hospital where Constantine has committed himself, occasionally achieves a suitably creepy vibe, thanks to Marshall's cunning use of long hallways and dark spaces.

The problem is that, as executed, the show seems stuck a creative netherworld all its own, somewhere between straight-faced action epic and snarky, quip-filled, Buffy the Vampire Slayer–style near-parody — and because it doesn't have the artistic chops of a Buffy, or a Sleepy Hollow, for that matter, it all comes across as calculating and insincere. The actors are game: The core cast includes Lost's Harold Perrineau as an all-knowing buddy/mentor/exposition-deliverer character, and Angélica Celaya as the Linda Hamilton figure in this Terminator-style, protect-the-savior-from-assassins story, a woman who has inherited a legacy that the demons don't want to come to fruition. But the action isn't exciting because all the characters seem more like tropes or attitudes than people, and they aren't flamboyant enough to be compelling despite this.

Ryan is a particular problem, I'm sorry to say. I don't know if he was miscast or poorly directed, but something about his grooming, makeup, and line delivery make him sound like (and sometimes resemble) Jim Carrey in comic high-dudgeon mode. And he's not a weighty enough actor (here, at any rate) to suggest the inner torment of this male Cassandra, who sees a demon infestation that's invisible to other people and uses bleak humor to deal with the pain of being more or less alone in his struggle. A number of pretty good laugh lines in the pilot — such as Constantine explaining that he regrets putting "Master of the Dark Arts" on his business card — don't quite play, for whatever reason, and our sense of Constantine as a broken, angry soul remains largely theoretical throughout, even when the character is clearly in spiritual agony. (It doesn't help that NBC apparently sanded off some of the character's rougher edges; there's no hint of the bisexuality established in the comics, and while the show is happy to show graphic supernatural violence of all sorts, it won't let Constantine smoke cigarettes.)

As is the case with every series, all these complaints could eventually prove moot, but NBC only sent out the first episode for review, so I don't have enough information to guess whether Constantine will get better or worse over time.