Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Constantine and the new breed of TV adaptations

Lazy Cash-ins Or Innovative Retellings?

Seriously - learn to light your fags, mate...

Constantine [TV series, NBC/Amazon Prime, 2014]

Of late, my television has become infested with what appears to be a demonic curse of lazy greed, conjured up from Hell by an instinctive belief that people only prefer the familiar, the previous, the safe - as if we only ever fall for someone who looks like our ex. It's nothing new to launch a show based on a film. Buffy, Terminator and Stargate in recent times, and Highlander, Alien Nation, Planet of The Apes and MASH spring to mind from my childhood as examples. But whilst my heavy-handed Constantine-inspired metaphor is therefore a little mean, the plethora of series launched in the U.S. alone in the last year or so does seem a little plague-esque, no?

Some have been smart continuations of a universe, full of respect for, and continuity with, their inspiration. Fargo, I'm looking at you. Some, like Hannibal, have through talent and persistence transcended initial cash-in concerns. Some, like Agents of Shield, at least appear to further the story of the wider 'verse and connect to it due being concurrent. And some like Sleepy Hollow are fun and different enough for the source not to matter. But some are just terrible and not just because they pale compared to that source. From Dusk Til Dawn, I'm looking at you. Or rather I'm not anymore. And never mind those in the works . Twelve Monkeys, Minority Report - okayyy... but the rest...?!

Constantine has arrived already with a losing battle to fight. The Francis Lawrence-directed film of nine years ago was a fair-sized hit and an enjoyable one in my eyes, yet was hit with the usual slamming from comic fans who saw so little left from the pillaging of Hellblazer. Well, I'll 'fess up' to only having skimmed through a couple of issues over the years so have no emotional investment in the loyalty of this latest, but it's been impossible to wander the nerd blogs of late without various debates over Constantine's smoking/bisexuality/gore/correct accent, all of which mimic what Keanu was hit with at the time of the movie. Whilst he was puffing away, he kept his hair and Bill and Ted voice... well, it is his voice, to be fair... (And whilst we are on the subject of accents, how do you Americans tolerate Rachel Weisz's appalling drawl?!) But that film could whack on an R rating and dismember and burn away, and at least had some serious weird in it.
Back off, nerds
Now NBC have launched their version which, thanks to the tax-dodging, drone-weilding scum at Amazon, I can watch nice and legal-like in the UK. Just two episodes in, so it's not fair to judge too harshly. But I will anyway, because I don't really care if he snogs a man, smokes a cig or uses the right hair dye. I just care if I am entertained to distraction, and so far it just about fails in that I am not eager for the next episode. It's too mainstream telly; despite the subject matter, there is nothing leftfield in the writing or direction, despite Neil 'Dog Soldiers' Marshall doing the pilot and bringing real style to the opening scene. There are many good things going on in it however which will mean that like Hollow and unlike Dawn I will keep watching for a couple more to see how it settles. If anything, it's nice to watch something as it goes out, spoiler-free, rather than gulp it down as a box-set. It fairly tests a show, I think, whereas having all the episodes laid out means perhaps I watch further than I would have otherwise.

Matt Ryan makes for a compelling John Constantine. His Welsh accent sneaks out a bit strongly for my attuned tastes, and he seems to stray into semi-Geordie in the pilot, but I'm sure his self-confessed stab at diluted Liverpudlian comes across refreshingly enough to U.S. ears (let me know below), and it fits the character. I found his abrasive moments with others, particularly in the second ep, enjoyable, and he makes a good go of reacting to some pretty effective C.G.I. Yet his moments of sincerity didn't ring true for me and I struggled to resist the urge to go back to watching Archer or something equally better every time he started babbling spells like he was in a comedy sketch. It's a patently ridiculous thing to have to do (and Keanu can bring it without breaking the spell because he is the king of staying in the zone) but Ryan needs time to flesh out his character more first before having to just suddenly do what he does in the pic above. That's him telling a demon or whatever those underground spirits were to bugger off. He holds his hand up and essentially goes a bit Repossessed  on us. Yet by the end of the second part I had warmed to him enough to think he'll wear-in the raincoat soon enough.

The pilot was more of a mess than the 'monster-of-the-week' second episode and had too much going on, with Michael from Lost waving his angel wings around in craters, Daniel from Lost doing his anxious nerd thing, and a British woman who wasn't in Lost actually doing a much better American accent than Weisz ever did (or am I wrong?). She failed to impress the producers enough to stick around however. Her character was meant to be the co-star role yet the pilot was reshot awkwardly to have her leave without a word. Replaced by the canon-faithful-ish Zed character was a good move potentially however - more an equal to Constantine and less of a victim. Let's hope they stop with the sexual tension for a bit to allow them to progress in a more complex way. As for the rest of the pilot characters who are almost entirely absent from the second, we will have to wait and see. Chas is an American but works well enough, but the veterans of The Island are both deserving of better scenes than those in the pilot. Whether we will return to the Abby subplot remains to be seen.

So has Constantine got the ability to dodge the adaptation-traps? Perhaps. Are there far too many new  adaptation shows out there and not enough thought and talent going into half of them? Absolutely. Does television need more original ideas? Well... yes and no. It still feels lazy to steal from films and literature, but so many 'original' stories can feel old-hat, whereas the very act of trying to get out of the shadow of the source material can inspire originality and verve. Is Constantine a Fargo in the making? Definitely not, but that is because it is not a cable show but a Friday night network show, not because it fails at adaptation, whereas Dawn was weak precisely because of that inability to shadow-box. And let's not dismiss the nerd victory here, in the context of our site. 10pm on a Friday on NBC belongs to a series run by people who did Dexter and Blade about a cult comic hero who battles Hell. And almost smokes a cigarette. Not bad, nerds. Not bad.