‘Constantine’ Review: Matt Ryan’s Antihero Charms Overcome Standard Genre Trappings

The demon-chasing NBC drama based on DC’s “Hellblazer” comics feels very familiar, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing

Matt Ryan stars as NBC's "Constantine"

There are no new ideas under the sun, and there are certainly very few new ideas on television. How many medical and legal dramas can you count that are on the air right now? So it should come as no surprise that NBC’s latest supernatural thriller “Constantine” feels very familiar.

In fact, you could say that it feels a lot like The CW’s “Supernatural,” in more ways than one. It’s not to say that NBC derived this new series from the decade-old story of the Winchester brothers. “Constantine” is based on “Hellblazer,” a comic that ran from 1988-2013, and John Constantine himself was introduced in 1985.

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Ignoring the ill-conceived Keanu Reeves film from 2005, this latest take comes closest to capturing the tone and attitude of the popular anti-hero. I’ll give credit to David S. Goyer and Daniel Cerone, who developed the series, for getting the character of John Constantine right. Matt Ryan, too, for playing him like the arrogant-but-lovable ass he is. Constantine is the man you need in your corner when things go wrong, but he’s not a man who’s easy to like.

Certainly he’s a man with a lifetime of personal demons and regrets, the biggest in this television series having to do with a little girl and an incident in Newcastle, England that’s emotionally scarred both John and his “oldest mate” and driver, Chas (Charles Halford).

In keeping with the lone antihero archetype, and Constantine absolutely is a tragic hero archetype, John is haunted by the incident in Newcastle, which both proves to be a weakness for him as well as a motivating strength.

Like “Supernatural,” this is a story about the reluctant good guys pitted against demonkind with the enigmatic and cryptic assistance of an angel. “Supernatural” fan-favorite angel Castiel (Misha Collins) here becomes “Lost” alum Harold Perrineau‘s Manny.

And like Sam and Dean Winchester (Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles), John and Chas go where they’re needed, and where the forces of evil — mostly demons — are causing trouble. There’s even a scene with loud rock music in the car, which is a signature element of the long-running CW series.

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I may seem to be harping on this connection too much, but that’s only because it was so prevalent throughout the pilot. The main difference between John and the Winchesters is that he knows the exorcism spells by heart whereas they have to look them up. There’s even a pretty girl in need of rescue.

All of that said, “Constantine” doesn’t necessarily pale in the comparison, nor did the similarity impact my ability to enjoy this new show whatsoever. There’s a fun dynamic between John and Chas that is yet to be explored, while we haven’t even met the third member of our trio yet.

After filming the pilot, the creators decided to move in a different direction. Whatever that means plotwise, it meant that original female lead Lucy Griffiths was out, along with her character Liv. She’ll be replaced in the series by Angelica Celaya as Zed Martin, a character from the comic series, starting with the second episode.

Lucy Griffiths on NBC's "Constantine"

It’s unfortunate, because they did a good job of establishing John and Liv together in an interesting dynamic. Like Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) on CBS’s “Sherlock,” Liv was drawn to this brilliant but brooding man, while he needed her to help ground him and give him a reason to keep trying to fight the good fight.

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Even worse, Lucy Griffiths did a good job in the role and the creators wrote a character with too many tantalizing dangling plots to lose her so quickly. Clearly she was meant to do more and be more, and now she’s gone. I want to know more about her father, as well as her ability to see the trapped souls of the world. She was our eyes into John’s crazy world.

Presumably, Zed will carry this role as well, but it’s weird to have to go through meeting his female counterpart two weeks in a row. Even on “Doctor Who,” companions generally stick around longer than one episode.

With promises of a lot more characters to come from the comic series, including Papa Midnite and The Spectre, I’m expecting “Constantine” to get a lot more complicated than it lets on in this pilot. It starts off as a fairly standard demon-hunting drama. There’s a case of the week, a woman in peril, and the scruffy-yet-dashing hero come to her rescue.

It’s a smart move, and something that worked very well for Perrineau’s big series “Lost.” That show drew people in by keeping it simple for a whole year before introducing alternate timelines, time travel and whatever the hell that ending was. The most successful genre shows have done this, like “The X Files,” “Sleepy Hollow” and even the various “Star Trek” series.

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In fact, recasting the female lead may be a blessing in disguise for the show, as it forced it to tell a self-contained story with this pilot. There were some scenes at the end that covered why Liz was no longer going to be a part of the show, while at the same time laying the groundwork for Constantine’s literal and figurative journey into just maybe becoming mankind’s savior.

While stories may be self-contained, “Constantine” will also carry larger story arcs that progress across a season, or multiple seasons. This means tantalizing mysteries and secret pasts, like Chas and Constantine. How they met promises to be an interesting story, while Chas proves to have quite a mysterious secret of his own.

What remains unknown is if and how “Constantine” will explore the larger DC Universe. He can currently be seen in a “Justice League” book from DC Comics, but the world established here would make for a very disconcerting crossover between The CW’s “Arrow” or “The Flash.”

After spending an hour with John Constantine, I’m hoping he sticks to his own corner of the DC Universe, and keeps the spandex-clad set out of his affairs. Paired with “Grimm” on Friday nights, NBC has crafted a perfect companion show in “Constantine.”

Now that’s a crossover I could get behind.

“Constantine” premieres Friday, Oct. 24 at 10 p.m. ET.