Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Constantine: Non Est Asylum

Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!
Here be SPOILERS for Constantine series 1 episode 1!

If you know me in real life, you’ll know that all I’ve banged on about since before Christmas is Constantine. I’ve even found time to yak about it on this blog. However, since NBC hasn’t yet made up its mind whether we get a season two or not, I’m having to rewatch season one. Not that there’s anything wrong with reliving one of my all-time favourite shows, but I’d rather have a new season to obsess over, rather than only having the past to go over. It’s just how I am. (Having said that, this will be the third time I’ve seen season one in its entirety. Don’t judge me. I’m out of Hellblazer comics.)

If you know me solely from this blog, you’ll know that I do a film review now and again. And when I do, I keep it to three choice words to sum the movie up. So guess what’s going to happen next? Oh yes, my friends - it’s on like Donkey Kong. I will start from the pilot of Constantine, and go all the way through all thirteen episodes, reviewing each one using three headings, because I have OCD about getting things in a logical order (you can thank years of watching my honorary granddad on TV for that. Leonard Nimoy, you are already missed).

Hold my vodka whilst I type; here we go with season one, episode one: ‘Non Est Asylum’.


We have a triple win here; we have the voice\tone of the episode, which is busy treading a fine line between humour (granted, it’s so dark it’s just the right kind of cynical plea for help) and showing us something in a show that we haven’t seen so far. Modern telly is full of dark, edgy, gritty or seriously scary stuff, but Constantine feels different to me in the same way that The Dresden Files was different; this isn’t the CIA or a band of rebels surviving against zombies. It’s not playing at taking the Iron Throne and it’s not procedural police work. This episode was about showing demons as inaccessible, ugly things. Other shows might make their demons use meatsuits (partly because there’s negligible CGI or effects involved), but this show makes them out to be beasts from the Pit, who occasionally put on a party frock in the shape of a human to prove a point, not to conceal what they look like.

We have the voice of the narrator, the ‘tell’ supplementing the onscreen ‘show’ - a gimic taken from Hellblazer. It’s either pulling you out of the moment by interrupting the feel of the scene, or it’s adding to the atmosphere when the story is on the big screen rather than in the comic. Either way it works for me; John was forever narrating his own cock-ups or victories, in his own style. It might have been weird not to hear his voice adding his two bob.

This brings us to the voice of John - or rather, the accent of John. Mostly soft Liverpudlian (severely toned down for an international market), we have Matt Ryan’s own Welsh creeping in to soften it even further. This is probably not upsetting the American market at all, whilst back in Blighty, it’s making a few people scratch their heads. Bah whizzers on them guys - I say go with it. It’s enough that they didn’t change John to being from flaming London - it’s about time shows realised that’s not the only place in England, let alone the UK. So far we’ve got a good undercurrent to the show, in large part to the skittish energy and pent-up rage that is John, and I don’t think it would work if Ryan has been told to use a generic Doctor Ten voice. His deep-seated pissed-off-ness only seems to come out when he’s at his most northern, which makes Manny the angel an omnipotent, sanctimonious counter-point to that. It works brilliantly. The clash between the two of them in the smoking crater that used to be a car park is a fine example of bloody good modern drama - or should that be thriller? Manny being mysterious and smug, and John being distinctly unimpressed and gobby was ace.


The single forty-odd minutes we got in the pilot (reshot, apparently) was enough to convince me that, whilst this episode was a little wobbly at times, it had magnificent potential. It had the same down-played cynicism and unexpected wit of some early Hellblazer comics, combined with some fresh faces and some mystery to carry the series forward. Although Chas was used sparingly, John did manage to bring his ‘stop all this bollocks’ perspective to it, and even the parts where wide-eyed Liv made me think this was tipping into ‘harmless’ Supernatural territory were saved in the end. Yes, they decided to ditch Liv’s story in favour of another direction, and while I feel a little mean saying this, I agreed whole-heartedly. I really did not fancy her hanging around to simply be a Companion in time and space to John’s Doctor. It’s really not that kind of show, and her character was not written to give us the kind of dynamic that Hellblazer was famous for. What we needed was someone who would challenge John and kick him into doing what he knew he should but didn’t want to; Liv was someone who would have done whatever she was told, and the momentary rebellion she would have felt would have been too easily quashed by a stern word from John. Not challenging at all. It’s almost as if the character of Liv was set up to fail. I do think Lucy Griffiths has a long career ahead of her, and even though Liv is gone, Lucy will be back across many networks, I’m sure.

Fitting, though, was Chas. Suddenly twenty feet tall and a lot less lippy than the comics, he nevertheless had the same kind of daffy helpfulness about him. Hellblazer!Chas was forever telling John to fuck off out of his taxi and stop bringing trouble to his doorstep (except that time with Geraldine), only to fold and call him weeks later when he missed his mate. Constantine!Chas has the (equivalent) taxi and a slightly nervous allegiance to John, but he’s drawn quite a different line in the sand when it comes to taking John’s shit. This actually works well for me. It might have been fun to have a show where the lead who successfully battles demons from the lowest circles of Hell is constantly getting his arse handed to him by his best mate for something as trivial as lighting up in the back of his cab, but the joke would wear thin quite fast - and John’s supposed to be a shady, dangerous fucker. Fitting, then, that this side of him came out when John confronted his old pal Ritchie, and realised how he was too scared to risk getting close to him to even get out of the room. John uses this to his advantage as he threatens to give him to the police back in England for what went down in Newcastle. Hellblazer!John would have done, without question - but would Constantine!John? I liked the scene - it rang true from a Hellblazer perspective, and it brought a lot of personality conflict to Constantine!John. He was getting more and more interesting from a character point of view, considering I was worried we’d get a watered-down version of Hellblazer!John. Of course, at this stage you’re not convinced he would actually do that to Ritchie. But the moment when you realise that yes, of course he bloody would, comes much later - when he gets a tiny whiff of the chance to save wee Astra, and pretty much runs behind Liv to shove her under the bus so fast she would have got whiplash. The moment demon!John, A.K.A Furcifer the demon (a nice touch, and well done by both the production team and Matt Ryan) brings back Astra we see John peeled raw. We see how close John’s emotions are to the surface, and also that he won’t make that mistake again, of letting people see them. Another wonderful scene from Matt Ryan - another case of hiring someone over-qualified for a role and finding everyone is perfectly ok with that.


How many other people can say “I’ll drive your demons away - kick ’em in the bollocks and spit on them when they’re down” and have you believe them? Ok, so telly is replete with leads, male and female now, who are ‘tough’ and ‘badass’ and ‘cool’. But Constantine!John is the same as Hellblazer!John here - he’s just a cocky little shit who’s trying to get away with doing as little as possible. And everyone knows that one example of scaring the shit out of people with the slightest of hands goes a long way toward building a gigantic reputation for giant-slaying. There again, that’s the impression he gives off, but those who’ve seen a few episodes in know that it covers the ruthless, determined side of Hellblazer!John that would set his own grandma on fire if it achieved a win for The Greater Good - and by that I mean Hellblazer!John. Right from the get-go there were many satisfying touches to Constantine!John, and the way they came about were well done, too. There was his confrontation with Manny, when they first meet, and John taking a look at his wings and telling him with (what should be) a patented sneer to “flap off”. Nice - and very Hellblazer. Later, again, he gives him a hard time: “There’s a fine line between ‘watching over’ and ‘stalking’,” and he’d rather vent all his fury into the angel’s face in the pouring rain than ask for help. Matt Ryan is a deceptively slight powder keg of anger and cynical wit, and the director uses it to everyone’s advantage. Where Harold Perrineau plays a perfect angel - supercilious, smug, angelically annoying, intriguing - the mini face-off is a wonderful promise of edgy scenes to come. The episode may have had some off-kilter moments, but it really did deliver the big scenes that easily added up to me putting this series to the priority of my week.

And just to remind us that this was going to be a dark series that could do creepy with the best of them, we got some good old fashioned jumps (the eye on the friend’s laptop), some knee-jerk shock-horror moments (the possessed body in the coroner’s bag - especially when it escapes), and some foreshadowing that was so subtle you’d miss it if you blinked (the flash of ‘dev’ on the wall when most of the lights went out in what was left of Liv’s place of work). There were ironic touches - a punk version of Ring of Fire (by Social Distortion) plays on the radio in Chas’ cab; the similarity between John’s dad calling him ‘Killer’ all of his life to the fact that demon!John tells him that he’s waiting for John to bring Hell a constant supply of fresh souls - because everyone who stands with him dies. It would be grimdark enough to make me less enthusiastic about watching it - but there’s Hellblazer!John, sticking two metaphorical fingers up at the darkness and spitting out a witty comeback or offensive one-liner sheerly to lighten his own mood (Guard: “It’s not screwed into anything.” John: “Neither am I, mate.” Demon!John: “How does it feel, Constantine, to lock eyes with your future?” John: “It’s a bit unsettling to be honest, mate. It’s not my best look.”)

As the episode ends, we see a clever meta-moment as John’s actions are transmuted into a comic book tableau. Just as you’re thinking, ah, I see what they did there, the camera pans back to reveal that someone is sitting on the floor, busily whipping up a hundred charcoal sketches of famous Hellblazer covers. That alone got me excited - who was this bird, what was she doing sketching comic covers and famous panes, and how were we going to meet her? That, coupled with John’s cynical resignation of all things that kick him up the arse, made me more than ready to see what happened the next week. A few nights after I saw this episode, I watched it again, and noticed touches that had gone over my head the first time. It’s a good job it was available on the site for so long, so I could stream it over and over.

So. Three titles done, an episode pulled to pieces and over-analysed. What conclusion have I come to? That it was worth the effort, and so was this review. I would happily give this episode eight out of ten; the little moments, the acting, the will to go outside the usual Warner Brothers entertainment model - they all outweighed any shaky casting for me. Eight out of ten and a big smile, caused by the anticipation of what was to come. And you can’t say fairer than that.

And on that note, I’ll leave it there. Part of me really wants to do episode two right sodding now, but most of me really needs to sleep before work tomorrow. Peach and lube, everyone. Peach and frelling lube.

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