For starters, “Constantine,” the TV show derived from DC’s “Hellblazer” comics, is better than “Constantine,” the 2005 movie starring Keanu Reeves, which amounts to damnation with faint praise. Matt Ryan is certainly appealing as the doomed-to-hell exorcist/demonologist, and the concept is perfectly positioned as a companion to NBC’s “Grimm,” premiering right before Halloween, no less. That said, the series — adapted by Daniel Cerone with an assist from genre specialist David S. Goyer — nearly chokes on its mythological mumbo-jumbo, and frankly, yelling at demons in foreign tongues seemed a whole lot scarier back when “The Exorcist” first turned heads.
Like all good demon fighters, Ryan’s Constantine is plagued by a dark past, haunted by the 9-year-old girl he couldn’t save, sentencing his own soul to hell. When introduced, in fact, he’s checked himself into an asylum, only to wearily — and wisecrackingly — rejoin the battle against demons visiting Earth, who manifest themselves by inhabiting unsuspecting folk.
Constantine has a few nondescript helpers in this endeavor, the most interesting being an angel (“Lost’s” Harold Perrineau, saddled with “Rosemary’s Baby” eyes) who speaks to him mostly in cryptic riddles. There’s also the little matter of the woman he’s trying to save in the premiere, who has inherited a legacy from the father she never met, a man who Constantine knew.
Those familiar with the comics won’t have the same trouble cutting through the arcane rules as the uninitiated will, although some fans have already griped about the character’s sexuality being sanitized for TV (in the comics he’s presented as bisexual). While departing from source material can be tricky, based on portentous warnings that “Things are crawling out of the shadows on a scale we’ve never seen before,” it’s difficult to imagine “Constantine’s” eponymous hero having much time to spare in consideration of his libido.
Dealing as it does with hell and possession, “Constantine” is spooky, and the visual effects (while perhaps slightly frontloaded for pilot purposes) are reasonably impressive. Moreover, NBC has exhibited a committed strategy to turning Fridays into a night for the macabre and escapism, with titles like “Hannibal” and “Dracula,” admittedly yielding somewhat mixed results.
Thanks to those aforementioned overflowing shadows, the program’s reluctant hero should have no shortage of threats to upend (the CW’s “Supernatural,” for one, certainly hasn’t lacked for plot lines). The challenge here will be keeping that formula fresh enough to prevent “Constantine,” the series, from prematurely sharing the same destiny that awaits Constantine, the man.
Put another way, it’ll likely come down to the very earth-bound matter of lead-in retention to determine just how long Hell can wait.