It is quite possible that John Constantine is the most successful supernatural character to emerge from DC Comics. For those unfamiliar with the character, Constantine is essentially an English, working class "master of the dark arts" who also finds himself sometimes playing the role of an occult detective. Constantine is cynical, sarcastic, and cunning, and can even be downright ruthless. At the same time, however, he is a humanist who is capable of kindness and someone who genuinely wants to do good in his life. The character first appeared over thirty years ago and his original title (Hellblazer) lasted twenty five years. John Constantine was popular enough that he provided the inspiration for a 2005 feature film starring Keanu Reeves entitled Constantine. The character's continued popularity would lead to the television series starring Matt Ryan currently airing on NBC.
The 2005 film Constantine departed considerably from the comic book version of the character, even though it took inspiration from the "Dangerous Habits" story arc from Hellblazer. While Constantine was still a cynical street magician who chain smoked, he was also an American who was played by the dark haired Keanu Reeves. What is more, while "Dangerous Habits" was set in Constantine's native England, the movie Constantine was set in Los Angeles. While the movie Constantine is entertaining on its own merits, given that Constantine's Englishness is an integral part of his character (an American Constantine would be something like an American Sherlock Holmes...), it is then hard to take the film seriously as a "John Constantine" movie. Fortunately that is not a problem with the new television series airing on NBC on Friday nights at 10:00 Eastern/9:00 Central.
While Matt Ryan is Welsh rather than English, he looks like John Constantine, so much so it's hard not to believe that he did not step out fully formed out of a Hellblazer comic book. More importantly, he sounds like John Constantine, down to Constantine's working class Scouse accent. Matt Ryan's John Constantine is cynical, snarky, and can be downright vicious when called upon to be so, but at the same time he possesses a compassionate streak and a desire to do what is right. The only thing missing from Matt Ryan's portrayal of Constantine is chain smoking, although given Constantine carrying around a lighter it can be assumed he is probably doing it off screen....
Not only is Matt Ryan's portrayal true to the character in the comic books, but the TV show has also retained the flavour of the comic books to a degree. This is largely helped by the supporting characters on the show, who are drawn from the pages of Hellblazer. Constantine's occasional sidekick and longest surviving friend from the comic books, Chas Chandler, is played by Charles Halford. While Chas has some abilities on the show that he does not have in the comic books, Charles Halford's portrayal of the character is still very close to that of the comic books. Angélica Celaya also plays psychic Zed Martin (who first appeared in Hellbazer #4, April 1988) very closely to the character who appeared in the comic books.
In addition to taking characters from the comic books, Constantine even adapted one of the stories from Hellblazer as an episode. The episode "A Feast of Friends", in which Constantine battles a hunger demon, is based on the first story from the pages of Hellblazer. While the other episodes so far have not been based on stories from the comic book, many of them easily could have been. Both "The Devil's Vinyl" (dealing with a demonic record) and "Danse Vaudou" (dealing with the dead returning to wreak havoc on the living) could easily have been from the pages of Hellblazer. Not surprisingly both episodes featured another character from Hellblazer--Constantine's occasional enemy and occasional ally Papa Midnite. Like the primary stars of the show, Michael James Shaw plays the role of Papa Midnite as if he stepped right out of the comic books
Constantine does depart from the comic book in some ways. While much of the run of Hellblazer is set in Britain, the TV series is set in the United States with Constantine having visited Atlanta, a small Pennsylvania mining town, and New Orleans so far. While Hellblazer fans might miss seeing Constantine in his native England, in some respects this is not that much of a departure, as plenty of stories and even story arcs in Hellblazer were set in the United States. Another departure from the comic book is the addition of the character Manny (played by Harold Perrineau), an angel charged by Heaven to watch over Constantine. While Harold Perrineau does a great job of playing Manny, so far it doesn't seem to me the character adds a lot to the show beyond letting us know Heaven has an interest in John Constantine. That having been said, it seems likely that the writers of Constantine have plans for Manny that might not seem clear to viewers at the moment.
Of course, the obvious question is "Can Constantine be enjoyed by people who have never read the comic books and are wholly unfamiliar with the character of John Constantine. I think it can. That is not to say that the show did not have a bit of a rocky start. While enjoyable over all, the pilot episode "Non Est Asylum" seemed a bit choppy, as if they were trying to fit far too much into 45 minutes. Another problem was the character of Liv Aberdine, played by Lucy Griffiths. During the episode she came off as little more than a terrified damsel in distress. Curiously, Liv was originally meant to be one of the regular characters (the character was created for the series and does not appear in the comic books). Fortunately Liv was replaced by Zed, who is a much stronger character. Like the pilot, the second episode ("The Darkness Beneath") is also enjoyable but flawed. Over all "The Darkness Beneath" seems little different from a run of the mill episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Supernatural.
Fortunately Constantine hit its stride with its third episode, "The Devil's Vinyl". While Hellblazer fans will be happy that the show at last feels more like the comic book, the typical television viewer will be happy that the show has suddenly become something very different from other supernatural dramas on the air. With "The Devil's Vinyl" Constantine becomes much grittier, much darker, and much scarier. It also becomes much more character driven. The relationships between the characters on Constantine can be much more complicated than those seen on most television dramas. Constantine and Papa Midnite are hardly amicable (in fact, they seem to consider themselves enemies), but on occasion they must work together. Zed considers herself Constantine's ally, yet she sometimes finds herself disapproving of the things he does. Constantine can be enjoyed for interactions between the characters nearly as much as it can be for Constantine battling the forces of darkness.
Of course, the relationships between the characters would not be nearly so effective (or entertaining) if not for a very capable cast. I have already discussed Matt Ryan's performance as John Constantine, but the rest of the cast is good as well. Angélica Celaya plays Zed as a strong, independent woman who is much more than window dressing (although as Constantine observes, she is easy on the eyes). As Chas, Charles Halford brings a strong counterpoint to John Constantine, playing the characters as a down-to-earth contrast to the Liverpudlian wizard. And, as pointed out earlier, Michael James Shaw plays Papa Midnite perfectly.
Ultimately the TV show Constantine is a different creature from the comic book Hellblazer, but it is shaping up as a TV show that fans of the comic books can enjoy. At the same time it is shaping up as a TV series that viewers who have never read an issue of Hellblazer can enjoy. After a bit of a rocky start, Constantine is becoming one of the best new shows of the season.