Constantine: Non Est Asylum (1×01)

Synopsis: John Constantine, Exorcist, Demonologist and Master of the Dark Arts, checks out of a mental asylum and travels to Atlanta, GA to protect an old friend’s daughter from demons. Meanwhile, he is haunted by his past, hubristic failures that sent an innocent 9-year-old girl to eternal damnation.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

A confession: I was a young fan of Keanu Reeve’s hard-boiled 2005 incarnation of John Constantine that critics and comic book purists panned. The movie alienated itself from canon, but I loved watching the chain-smoking, greasy-haired, tattoo-ridden exorcist roam the alleyways of Hell-on-Earth, dealing with suspect angels and outwitting demons that knuckle-rolled coins. I remember the cold, bleak filmic textures divulged the spirit world from Earth. To this day it’s one of my favorite movies.

Another confession: I’m not overly familiar with the Constantine of the “Hellblazer” comic book series. What I enjoyed of the original movie was bliss in ignorance, and the show’s developers are clearly devoted to the tonalities of the comic. So far, the very entertaining series premiere shows lots of promise, even as it labors through an obligatory exposition-gasm penned by Daniel Cerone (former showrunner for “Dexter”) and David S. Goyer (“Battlestar Galactica”). Here’s hoping the producers don’t sully Alan Moore’s lore into yet another hammy police procedural.

Welsh ex-Royal Shakespeare Company actor Matt Ryan breathes electric life to the character; and honestly, his performance here is the main draw to stick with the series. He faithfully sports the haunted, working-class Englishman sleazy, but fatal hubris necessary to the original comic book character, and is just addictively watchable as he invokes Latin chants and spouts brusque lines; at one point in the episode, he wryly describes his origins as the result of “the sordid passions of my parents” with a rakish smirk.

Constantine - Season Pilot
Psychiatry won’t help you, John. [NBC]
The conceit of electricity surges through the pilot episode. We are introduced to Constantine’s sordid world and profession as he voluntarily straps down for some electroshock therapy—he’s checked himself into a mental asylum as a vain attempt at erasing the PTSD and horrific memories of being an exorcist, demonologist, and Master of the Dark Arts. “That says ‘Master’ does it?” John scoffs to a psychiatrist. “I should really change that to ‘petty dabbler.’ I hate to put on airs.” There are some vague allusions to a 9-year-old girl named Astra he accidentally sentenced to eternal damnation. In that story is the source of guilt so deep that it brings him to pitiable tears.

A swarm of cockroaches leads Constantine to a fellow patient with a predilection for painting on the asylum walls; turns out, a demonic spirit took her body for a spin to leave him a message: “LIV DIE.” It tells him that he’s been wasting his time there, and soon he’s going down to Atlanta, Georgia to fight a devil.

Constantine - Season Pilot
“It’s only paint, Love.”–John Constantine [NBC]
The message refers to a doe-in-headlights rental car worker named Liv Aberdine (Lucy Griffiths,) who is prey to an electricity-zapping demon called Furcifer. Aberdine provides the classical mechanism of the naïve series outsider, a character the audience is meant to identify with. The woodiness of Griffiths’ acting turned me off her character quite early on—but in due course, the stiltedness started working with the already reductive fish-out-of-water character arc. But apparently, the producers decided to unceremoniously write Liv out of the series by the end of the episode. Oh well?

John Constantine and his complicatedly pseudo-immortal sidekick Chas (Charles Halford) save Liv from two chilling encounters with the electricity demon, and escort her to a dark magic safe house in the woods. Liv learns from Constantine that her father, assumed dead before she was born, was actually a gifted exorcist, a friend of Constantine, and largely absentee, passed just a year ago. She’s also inherited her father’s demon-tracking abilities and a special connection to “parallel planes of existence” inhabited by spirits and ghost trains. With the help of her father’s necklace, she can scry and see spirits hidden underneath an earthly facade; on her father’s scrying map, she pinpoints demonic activity on Edgewood Street and in several pockets scattered around the country.

Constantine reveals that he’s there to make good on a promise to her father that he’d protect her at all costs. He seeks a redneck hacker university professor plagued with the shakes named Ritchie Simpson, yet another figure in the exorcist’s past. The good guys need him to turn off the entire power grid of Atlanta, which is the smartest way to battle an electricity-leeching demon. But before that conversation takes place, (stay with me here) Constantine has a brief interlude with a fiery-eyed angel named Manny (Harold Perrineau,) in which we learn that Constantine is headed for eternal damnation. A smile from the slant angel, however, offers Constantine a sliver of hope through redemption.

With the battle preparations finished, Constantine bribes a security guard for access to the roof of a building, under the pretense of having roof sex with Liv (which, I suppose, was written to show off how sleazy John’s character can be). John’s plan is to use Liv as bait to draw out Furcifer into a seal of Solomon and Horus; the magic circle will trap the demon for Constantine to banish back into Hell. The demon finally shows up, this time in the body of the balding and portly security guard.

Constantine - Season Pilot
Constantine’s skillz. [NBC]
The plan works, especially when Ritchie cuts off Atlanta’s power grid and cuts the demon off from his energy source. But Furcifer, however, puppets an avatar of poor young Astra to dig a knife into the guilty conscience of Constantine; here, we get a glimpse of what a truly haunted soul he is. Before John gives in to Furcifer’s promise of Astra’s release in exchange for letting him free (here, we get the sense that John has made pacts with demons before), Liv steps in with her necklace and reveals that it’s all a trick. Constantine tearfully re-focuses in time to send Furcifer back to Hell.

Constantine’s final rooftop duel with Liv’s stalker demon was underwhelming, especially compared to earlier scare sequences. For example, we witness a dead girl encased in a body bag inside a pitch-black ambulance suddenly shaking around and hitting the walls in a freakish, demon-possession style (a horror trope that will never fail to scare the shit out of this humble writer). The driver climbs in to investigate the commotion. All goes suddenly dead still. The ambulance lights flicker out. The driver turns on his flashlight, and is suddenly jumped and mauled by the ghoulish corpse. But I digress.

Constantine - Season Pilot
NBC’s banned smoking on the show. But the show’s developers are certainly flirting with the ban. [NBC]
With the day saved, John checks into a bar to nurse a few pints of beer. Meanwhile, in a scene that is hauntingly reminiscent of the recent Michael Brown incident in Ferguson, a local teenager is murdered on Edgewood Street–the work of another demon. Liv witnesses the crime scene and the sorrowful mother, recognizing the location from her scry map; she becomes determined to do some exorcism of her own with the help of Constantine. He rebukes her at the bar. She flies off to California and off the show.

As forewarned, the episode crams in a ton of exposition at a hiccupping pace, but it’s to be expected of network pilots. With an engrossingly complex character at its heart, this premiere offers a more intriguing premise than any other NBC shows coming out this fall.

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