Now that NBC’s Constantine has been officially cancelled, it seems like time to look back at the series and decide whether or not it was successful. Based on fans’ #SaveConstantine campaigns you could argue that it was. Based on ratings – and as an adaptation of the comics – it wasn’t so great.
It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of the comics, and I stuck with the show to the bitter end. In the beginning, I thought the show had some potential but as it went on, I found most of that potential was squandered. Before the show started, I made a list of things I wanted to see the show explore, and unfortunately it failed on all five counts:
- Punk Rock. While we saw a picture of young punk John (sporting a self-made Mucous Membrane t-shirt) and he listened to the Sex Pistols in the third episode, the spirit of punk was pretty absent in this series. There was no edge, no real grit, and the perfunctory references don’t really make up for that lack of attitude.
- Con Jobs. Not even one! There was a bit of lip service paid to his talents in this area, but he almost always turned to some magical MacGuffin to get the job done. He blackmailed Richie and convinced Gary to sacrifice himself, but he never pulled off any elaborate scams without the help of some magical gizmo.
- Politics. None at all. The American setting could have been a ripe background for commentary on social issues in North America, but of course that’s too risky for network TV. It was even backward and dated with its politics sometimes, especially with the racist portrayal of Romani. John’s politics and background would have him support the oppressed and disenfranchised, not insult them.
- Family Ties. Despite harping on John’s dead mum for some reason, the show ignored every opportunity to bring his family into the story. The story touches on his rocky relationship with his father, but John’s sister and niece were completely removed from the finale, despite being introduced in that episode’s source. Exploring John’s family would have added another layer to the character and given him something else to feel guilty about.
- Ladies. Zed was pretty solid and I liked Anne Marie more here than in the comics, but neither was given as much screen time as I’d have liked. Given the number of characters who showed up for an episode and disappeared, I’d have loved to have seen one or two ladies from the comics instead of the characters invented for the show – and a bit more development for the ladies we did see.
And that’s not the end of the show’s problems. This article at the Daily Dot, written halfway through the season, pegs a lot of the issues. They include (but are not limited to) an underdeveloped support cast, boring monsters, and casual racism. “Most disappointing of all,” however, “Constantine’s “dark past” frames him as a stereotypically glib-but-troubled antihero, rather than the disaster-prone weirdo of Hellblazer fame.”
After watching the full season, I’d add that the show’s biggest failure was its fear of taking risks. In order to make him a more palatable protagonist, John was softened significantly, gaining a clearer (and ostensibly more sympathetic) motivation for doing what he does: he’s motivated by guilt over a dead girl and his dead mum. While other characters were happy to tell John that he’s a bad person, and occasionally the writers did seems to understand what really drives him, they took pains to make him a more unambiguously heroic character than the comics did. Sure, he wasn’t afraid to manipulate his friends when necessary, but at least his goals were noble. Every week we’d revisit how dangerous it is to be a friend of John’s, but almost every character from his past ends up okay. The exception, perpetual scapegoat Gary Lester, was at least given some semblance of choice in his fate. Gone is John the bastard who’s in this game for the thrill, who will continually sacrifice his friends (and sometimes strangers) to achieve his ends.
Risk-aversion must also be partially to blame for the relocation from grimy London to a super-secret clubhouse in the middle of the woods in America. The procedural aspect has successfully driven occult series from Buffy to Supernatural, but it’s not the right fit here – that structure often demands that stories wrap up neatly without too great a toll. The overarching plots – Zed’s family and the Brujeria – introduced great ideas, but the show never followed through on them. The final episode could have been used to set up a compelling arc for a second season, but a single twist isn’t enough to do that. Instead, they tried to adapt one of the most disturbing and effective moments of horror in the comics, but dampened its effect by revealing too much and removing its connection to John. As for the big reveal at the end, anyone who’s read even one issue of Hellblazer should have seen it coming a mile away. A disappointing finale made the whole show seem even less impressive in retrospect.
Now I should admit that there were elements that kept me watching. I always appreciated the small character beats that felt like authentic John, such as getting drunk and self-pitying in his underwear, offering to make breakfast for his one night stand (and her unsuspecting boyfriend), or experimenting with ancient and possibly dangerous magic while very drunk. And despite playing the comedy a bit broad sometimes, Matt Ryan was a gift, it’s unfortunate that the writing couldn’t match his casting. I was also curious to see how Zed’s family and the Resurrection Crusade would play out, especially alongside the barely-introduced Brujeria. But unfortunately, as with most plotlines on the show, this stuff never properly played out. So I kept watching, but I wasn’t surprised or especially upset when the cancellation was announced. If another network miraculously picks the show up, I’ll keep watching out of curiosity, but not much more. Putting John on one of the CW DC shows (which is the current rumour) would probably only exacerbate his show’s issues by trying to shove him into a superhero narrative – even the comics have finally accepted this doesn’t work. But given that creators on Twitter are the source for all of these rumours, they’re pretty unlikely anyway.
With a show like Hannibal on NBC, I hoped they’d be more open to making a darker, riskier show than they did. Constantine turned out to be as boring and run-of-the-mill as you’d expect from network. It’s too safe, too clean, too generic. And Hellblazer deserves better than that.