This past Friday, word came down from the executives at NBC that they had decided to cancel Constantine, the show based on the Vertigo/DC Comics series Hellblazer. This comes as a crushing blow to fans of the show, who had taken to social media to plead the case of the middling series (in both ratings and critical response) with the tag #saveconstantine. Their voices were heard and a story was pitched for a second season, but in the end NBC decided to pass on it.
The writing had been on the wall for months, with the first sign being that NBC had elected to not order a “back nine” of episodes to the season. This resulted in production ending after the first thirteen episodes had ended, spelling imminent doom for the show. Daniel Cerone, the showrunner of Constantine, has already placated fans by saying they are shopping the show to other networks in the hopes that they will be able to save it from being totally dead. But one has to ask, looking at the history of the character and the style of story that has always been told with John Constantine…would the series have ever truly worked?
One of the very first reasons why Constantine was unable to find a foothold at NBC was due to the fact that the premise of the character is one that inherently would have difficulty at a network like NBC. Focusing on John Constantine, exorcist and master of the dark arts, the series followed John as he explored the dark nature of the world around us. The comic series Hellblazer, one of the longest lasting books at any publisher and the main inspiration for the TV series, saw Constantine face horrors from both heaven and hell, along with having to deal with equally disturbing acts from ordinary men. The series never shied away from showing graphic imagery, and Hellblazer was a book that always carried a “mature readers” tag on the cover. Therefore, it was assumed that any show would need to be just as dark and violent in order to be a worthy adaptation.
Granted, NBC hasn’t been hesitant in taking on challenging series that push the envelope in regards to the level of disturbing imagery. The show Hannibal, currently set to return for its third season on NBC, has carried with it some of the most repulsive and horrifying scenes of many shows currently airing on any channel. While it may not have been the ideal location for a character like Constantine, NBC had the potential to make the series work.
But low ratings right out of the gate (airing on Fridays can only hurt shows, especially brand new ones like Constantine), coupled with a large budget due to so many special effects hurt Constantine fast. Despite reports that NBC wanted the producers to go even darker than they were originally making the show, Constantine felt like it was unsure of how to go about making itself known as a worthy successor to the legacy of horror that the comic series had established. It’s arguable that a show like Constantine, which shouldn’t be afraid of pushing the envelope when it comes to gore and horror, should have been on a cable channel to begin with. One can only imagine what a show based on Hellblazer would be like had it aired on a network like HBO or AMC.
It also didn’t help that Constantine, and Hellblazer as a series, has served as the basis for many shows that had already been established on TV years before the idea of bringing the character of John Constantine to television had even come up. The most obvious parallel would be the show Supernatural, airing on the CW network. Focusing on Sam and Dean Winchester, that show follows the brothers as they traveled around the United States fighting monsters and demons that threatened to take over our world. Sound familiar?
The DNA of John Constantine’s adventures can be seen in several major productions and stories that have come out over the past several years. Having been published since the eighties, Hellblazer has served as the basis and inspiration for countless stories over the past three decades. Even Grimm, which Constantine had been paired with on Friday nights, has some of the same elements of Hellblazer. A figure having to fight supernatural forces to protect the people he cares about…it almost makes one wonder why NBC decided to pick up Constantine, knowing they had a show that was almost identical in nature.
But perhaps the biggest and most glaring problem with bringing a character like Constantine to a continuing series is that John Constantine is a solo figure most of the time. On many of his adventures he is seen acting alone, only bringing in help from his “friends” when he can’t handle a problem on his own. While there are key figures that recur in the series, such as Chas (who was an integral part of the first season of the show), they only appear for a short while before being pushed away by John’s actions.
This causes a problem for any TV show to overcome, since no show can focus on a solo character without having a regular supporting cast to act around that character. It would also keep the show from building a strong supporting cast to the lead, especially if these characters cycled out at the same speed they do in the comics. It’s hard to care about a character if they only stick around for one season, regardless of how compelling and dynamic the lead is.
Constantine tried to solve this problem by alternating between Chas and Zed as Constantine’s “partners” on missions each episode. But as the season progressed, the excuses for not having all three characters there became more and more ridiculous (Chas needing to work on his cab, Zed being busy with art school, etc.). This led to a strange dynamic in the show that ultimately hurt the character development that is needed in any story, especially in a show that is just establishing itself.
But this glaring problem has a simple solution, which is that you make John a supporting character. When he first appeared in the pages of Swamp Thing by Alan Moore, Constantine was the mysterious magician who knew everything about what was going on. Appearing and vanishing whenever he felt like it, he kept stringing both the characters and reader along as he plotted a way to save the world from total annihilation. He was the cool secondary character everyone wanted to know more about.
Everyone likes these kinds of enigmatic, badass characters. Just look at Angel on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who when he first appeared (before moving off to L.A. and getting his own show) acted very similarly to how Constantine first acted. He was dark and brooding, knew more than he was letting on about, and served as a guide to the characters and viewer. This is who Constantine needs to be. Take the focus off of him and return him to his roots.
Obviously, this means that the construction of the show would need to change drastically. But one property that has potential to take the character back to where he needs to go is Justice League Dark. Focusing on several supernatural characters from the DC Universe, such as Deadman and Zatanna, this set-up could see John take a supporting role while still being able to have strong character development take place and have really cool plotlines focusing on him. The showrunners could even take plot points from famous Hellblazer stories and adapt them to fit the series, such as the famous “Dangerous Habits” story (which sees John diagnosed with lung cancer).
There have been rumors for several years that Guillermo del Toro has been working to get a Justice League Dark – esque movie made, entitled Dark Universe. The project has seen little traction, yet could eventually see the light of day. However, perhaps these characters could work better on a TV series (even a miniseries), allowing them to better establish themselves and not be distracted by massive action scenes. It would also allow each character on the “team” to have their moment in the spotlight and not feel like a second thought. As part of this, Constantine could thrive and become the household name he has the potential to be.
While the news of Constantine’s cancellation is disheartening for fans, it should be noted that the character is a difficult figure to crack. John Constantine is a magician at heart, and it will take one just like him to make an adaptation that is fitting to his long and grizzly history. Daniel Cerone came the closest so far, but the NBC version of Constantine was still a ways away from being the same “nasty piece of work” that the comic character is.