Sometimes having to live down a negative legacy of bile and hatred is just as heavy a burden as having a legendary one to live up to. Much like the reception of 2012’s Dredd was tainted by Sylvester Stallone’s macho posturing, monosyllabic speech and helmet removal seventeen years previously, so Constantine will be forced to emerge from the darkened shadow of the Keanu Reeves-starring 2005 movie of the same name. While the latter is not quite the irredeemable shambles collective memory declares it to be, as an adaptation of the magnificent Hellblazer comics it was all but meaningless, and this is where the series sets itself apart. The very fact that Matt Ryan (Assassin’s Creed IV) actually resembles his fictional counterpart and the plot immediately incorporates Constantine’s comic book backstory means this first episode is barely begun before it’s surpassed the film. When he later rocks up in a crumpled shirt and tie beneath a tan trench coat, emerging from the taxi of long-time friend Chas, you know the showrunners are taking the source material seriously.
Prior to that, things kick off in Ravenscar Psychiatric Facility for the Mentally Deranged. Constantine, haunted by his role in a botched exorcism that resulted in the violent death and eternal damnation of a young girl named Astra, desperately wants to believe his occult experiences are the result of a lifelong delusion. But a message scrawled on the wall by a possessed patient soon puts paid to that, leading him to the daughter of an old friend who is being targeted by demons.
Played by Lucy Griffiths (Robin Hood, True Blood) with a wobbly American accent, Liv is a seemingly unremarkable young woman whose troubles provide a gateway into the largely unseen world of the supernatural, while utter cluelessness regarding it, makes for some convenient but not laboured exposition. Joining Constantine in his exploits is the aforementioned Chas Chandler (Charles Halford, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), a loyal, hulking and taciturn man whose mentioned “survival skills” is likely a reference to his being one of the very few of Constantine’s associates who didn’t end up dead, although in the show this has been taken to a literal extreme and is yet to be fully explained. Oversight of Constantine’s actions comes in the form of Manny (Harold Perrineau, Lost), a cryptic and condescending angel. If Constantine is a like a paranormal private investigator, the celestial host are the equivalent of the local police force, tolerating his presence for its convenience, without directly approving of it. It’s clear that Something Big is coming and the angels want to use Constantine to face it; hinting that doing so might attain him the redemption he doesn’t believe he deserves and won’t admit he desires.
Although the show will be doubtless be driven by conflict between otherworldly powers that Constantine will regularly defend ordinary people against, it’s as much a study of the man himself. Despite his wisecracking manner and apparent lack of concern with the danger in which he puts himself, he is driven by a deep-seated self-loathing stemming from his failure to save Astra. He seeks out and battles the forces of the supernatural simply because he is one of a very few capable of doing so. Although he does more good than harm he is far from heroic, and is shown to not be above threatening and blackmailing people into aiding him should requests for help be denied.
Despite Constantine’s mastery of the dark arts (“I should really change that to petty dabbler; I hate to put on airs“) consisting of an assortment of spells, incantations and, glimpsed very briefly, what might be warding tattoos, his greatest skill is that of a con artist, possessing an uncanny ability to manipulate his enemies into overconfidence and then use this deception against them, a strategy far more satisfying to watch play out than straightforward superiority in magical prowess.
A few nit-picking details will linger: Constantine’s name is still mispronounced; Welshman Ryan does not affect a Scouse accent (although he will nevertheless likely still have US audiences who haven’t seen Torchwood enquiring “what kind of British” he is); and Constantine’s infamous chain smoking won’t be seen due to the baffling morality standards of American network TV, although intermittent fiddling with a lighter suggests he is yet to kick the dangerous habit, even if it’ll never be shown on screen. Elsewhere, some product placement is rather blatant, but quite frankly, if you’ve ever endured the physically painful Prius adverts periodically crowbarred into the dialogue of Warehouse 13 you can put up with anything. However, these are minor niggles of the sort that will only get to you if you let them (or if you are the kind of person who likes to spend their time bitching on IMDb message boards), and don’t detract from the quality of the show.
Non Est Asylum is a pilot episode in the truest sense, consisting of a standalone story structured to introduce audiences to the domain of its eponymous occult detective. It’s unfair to say that it doesn’t do justice to the depth of the comics’ 300-issue quarter-century run as such an accomplishment is simply not possible within the space of 42 minutes. It does, however, provide a compelling starting point from which the rest of the series can build, which if the strength of this debut is anything to go by, will be something to look forward to.