While decidedly a distant No. 2 on the comic book movie front, DC has dominated the TV landscape in the past decade plus and this fall, three new shows featuring characters from the DC Universe debuted. “The Flash” is a fun full-on unashamed superhero effort while “Gotham” is still trying to determine its identity. This week, the third show — “Constantine” — debuted Friday with a very strong premiere that felt less like an origin episode and more like a series that has already found its ideal tone and direction.
As I’m more a traditional capes and tights comic book reader, my knowledge of all things “Constantine” is seriously lacking so I’ll have miss all but the most obvious comic book references and won’t go all Comic Book Guy over changes to character continuity. Heck, I liked the movie starring Keanu Reeves, which some comic purists hated, so I’m not exactly a stickler with this character.
We open in jarring fashion with our title character, John Constantine (Matt Ryan, “Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior”) in a sanitarium preparing for electric shock therapy. The kicker? Constantine voluntarily went in for treatment. In a therapy session, he explains about his frustration with stopping a demon from possessing a girl, but his therapist tries to rationally explain what Constantine knows to be true. It’s not until a fellow patient gets possessed and paints a message on the wall that Constantine realizes his quest for some peace won’t be found here.
Meanwhile, Liv (Lucy Griffiths), a seemingly average young woman, has her first encounter with an evil spirit, which opens up the pavement around her in a well-done display of the show’s special effects. Constantine comes to the scene to help, but unsure what to make of him, Liv runs off. As Constantine investigates, he’s greeted by an angel, Manny (Harold Perrineau, providing the gravitas that Jada Pinkett Smith fails with her Fish Mooney in “Gotham”), who wants Constantine’s help in combating the growing demon forces running rampant throughout the world. I’m getting a real “Ghostbusters” vibe from the show, but I fully mean that as a compliment.
While the NFL version may be “Matty Ice,” the show’s version is scorching and carries the show with a breezy, appropriately devil-may-care attitude. Ryan allows Constantine to not necessarily be the occultist with a heart of gold, but he does care more about people than he lets on beyond his snark and biting sarcasm. Beyond the more comic character accurate blonde hair, Ryan seems more conflicted and complex, while Reeves’ take was more detached demon-fighter.
Liv decides to take Constantine up on his offer to help and gets introduced to his running buddy, Chas (Charles Halford). The trio ride off only to get attacked by a possessed bus and electrical wire, which skewers Chas. Nice knowing ya buddy.
Constantine doesn’t seem especially broken up about his pal’s death and assures Liv that not everything is as it seems. He brings her to her father’s cabin in the woods. Back in the day, her dad helped Constantine on a number of cases. In the cabin, Liv picks up Dr. Fate’s helmet. Dr. Fate is a longtime DC character dating back to the 1940s and was a charter member of the Justice Society of America. Constantine warns her not to pick up helmet as it tends to take over its wearer. The tease of Fate showing up solidly has my interest piqued. Constantine gives her a medallion, which reacts to her touch and begins identifying demonic-tinged locations on a map.
Constantine heads out to meet another ally, Ritchie (Jeremy Davies so the show is getting bonus points for having two “Lost” alumni in the first episode), who still wants nothing to do with him after they failed to save the girl, Astra, from being possessed. The fight for Astra’s soul looks to be a significant story arc through this season.
Back at the house, Constantine returns as does Chas with no ill effects from his “death.” I thought Chas was an alias for Mitch Shelley, the DC character known as Resurrection Man, but he also had a new superpower with each death so it doesn’t seem to match up. After getting Ritchie to go along with his plan, Constantine is ready to take on the demon pursuing Liv.
Liv gets Constantine tells her his mother died in childbirth, which prompted him to get into the occult. The demon comes for Liv and takes on Constantine’s guise, but after that fails to shake him, the demon summons “Astra” and that nearly breaks Constantine. He refocuses and conjures a spell to destroy them in another fantastic special effects display.
Ritchie takes Liv back home, but she spots one of the locations on the map and sees a dead teenager ravaged by a demon. The series tackles its first curveball as the writers decided to write Liv’s character out after spending nearly the entire pilot establishing her role in the series. Chas comes in to a bar to give Constantine the medallion back saying she isn’t coming back. Constantine shares that he put a cloaking spell that should keep Liv safe. It was a bit of an awkward way to write Liv off, but it’s probably best to move on rather than let audiences really get attached to her and then abruptly write her off.
Manny inhabits the bartender and isn’t happy that Constantine made Liv go to an incident that would in essence scare her off. Constantine wanders down an alley preparing to face off against some gun-toting demons and questions who in their right mind would help him as we cut to someone channeling Isaac Mendez from “Heroes” and drawing visions of Constantine.
The show had a fairly bad debut ratings wise, but hopefully that’s just because it opened against Game 3 of the World Series. I still feel like premiering the show next Friday – Halloween – would have been smarter and since the show is on NBC, it will need to improve without the baseball competition quickly or Constantine may find ratings and NBC execs a tougher challenge than any demon.