Constantine episode 1 review: Non Est Asylum

Does the TV version of Constantine live up to its layered, lyrical Hellblazer legacy? Not yet, but give it time...

This review contains spoilers.

1.1 Non Est Asylum

“Whoever you are, I’m a nasty piece of work. Ask anybody.”

I’m no Master of the Dark Arts, but reviewing a TV pilot is a bit of a psychic exercise in itself. Reviewing a pilot of a show with a history as momentous as Constantine’s is like doing a psychic reading, exorcising Nergal, battling lung cancer, and trying to bang several attractive women and attractive men all at the same time. How can we possibly tell from 45 minutes of screen time whether Constantine will do justice to the greatness that Hellblazer built up in over 25 years of edgy storytelling, scathing social commentary, and fearless leaps into the horror of the human psyche? We can’t. But I’m going to try anyway.

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As this episode offered ample exposition, there isn’t much need to explain things to the uninitiated, but I will offer a little history from beyond the fourth wall. John Constantine made his first speaking appearance in Saga Of The Swamp Thing #37 in 1985. He received his own series, Hellblazer, in 1988; it was first published by DC, then was moved to Vertigo at the imprint’s launch in 1993. Hellblazer was Vertigo’s longest-running title when it ended in 2013 and was replaced by the ongoing New 52 series Constantine published by DC. An alternate version of him also appears in the ongoing Justice League Dark.

A bad boy among comics, Hellblazer defied conventions and shunned the safer paths tread by most other titles. A lot happened in the world over its 25-year run, and the series never hesitated to comment on the social and political issues of its day. It has been credited as a forefather in the occult detective genre. Yet for all its demons and spirits and evil gods, Constantine’s story is rooted firmly in reality. He has battled serial killers, domestic abusers, terminal disease, corrupt politicians, and environmental destruction. Hellblazer’s most horrific demons are the ones inside its leading man: the loneliness and regret and half-hearted despair at the futility of it all. These are the evils he must fight off every time he stumbles into trouble or is momentarily inspired to try making something good of his life. Constantine makes a lot of mistakes, but we the readers share in his struggle for goodness so intimately that we cannot help but forgive him even as we condemn him. It’s powerful stuff, and I almost pity the people of the Constantine TV show team who face the task of trying to replicate that.

Does this pilot episode live up to that legacy? Well, no. Of course not. But it’s the start of something that might, given time. And that is all anyone could reasonably expect it to be.

The episode begins with John Constantine (Matt Ryan) at Ravenscar Asylum trying to fight off his depression over past events at Newcastle. There, Constantine attempted to save a possessed 9-year-old girl named Astra by summoning a more powerful demon to fight off the one possessing her. But the demon he summoned, Nergal, dragged Astra into hell, and now Constantine lives in torment over having sent a child to eternal damnation.

Sadly, Constantine doesn’t get to spend much time working on his mental health. He learns that a demon is after Liv Aberdine (Lucy Griffiths), daughter of a deceased friend of his. So Constantine is off to Atlanta to protect the clueless Liv and help her discover her paranormal abilities, while she helps the show’s writers by offering plenty of opportunity for exposition. Assisting Constantine are taxi driver Chas Chandler (Charles Halford) and Ritchie Simpson (Jeremy Davies); Chas is a friend and Ritchie is more like a hapless accomplice. In Atlanta, Constantine also meets Manny (Harold Perrineau), an angel who wants his help. Constantine isn’t too keen on this, since he blames angels for damning him to hell, but Manny suggests that his damnation might be lifted if he helps the angels.

Though Liv was originally planned to be a series regular, she was replaced late in the game when the showrunners noticed that she is super annoying. The new female lead will be Zed (Angélica Celaya) who we can probably assume is the woman at the end of the episode doing all that Hellblazer cover art. Sadly, her hair is not silver nor is she half bald, but I have high hopes that she will be a dynamic force in the show even if they decide to cut out her new-agey female naked parties.

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Constantine’s wry sense of humour makes him hard not to like, and the horror elements of the episode offer some scary images. References to the comics and a use of character and backstory that is fairly faithful to the source material will please long-time fans. But Non Est Asylum never rises above the tropes of the occult genre that Hellblazer helped define. The guilt-ridden Newcastle backstory is nothing we haven’t seen in dozens of other anti-heroes with tragic pasts. The demonology is cut from the same cloth as that of a thousand horror movies. The psychic abilities of the “good guys” are fun to watch but not particularly fresh. Granted, most of these are elements taken out of Hellblazer. But Constantine has yet to tap into the messy, primal, lyrical human drama that takes Hellblazer above its sometimes clichéd building blocks.

Yet the people behind the Constantine TV show offer enough homage to the source material that we can surmise that they are not just here to capitalize on a name with a built-in fan base. This show’s team might really understand why Constantine is such a powerful force in comics culture. The challenge for them will be translating that to the screen. In the meantime, Constantine is worth sticking around for. It may not have achieved greatness yet, but it’s not half bad either.  

(By the way, if you didn’t catch it, Constantine’s phone number is (404) 248-7182. Call him if you’ve got any demon problems, or if you just want him to make some snarky remarks at you over the phone.)

Read more about Constantine on Den Of Geek, here. It is available in the UK on Amazon Prime.