'Master of the dark arts’ comes to NBC

Matt Ryan as John Constantine and Lucy Griffiths as Liv in the series' first episode. (NBC)

Against the things that loudly go bump in the night, we now have a defender, John Constantine. An "exorcist, demonologist, and master of the dark arts," he's the protagonist of NBC's souped-up supernatural series Constantine (Friday, 10 p.m.).

Keanu Reeves played Constantine in a far more sinister 2005 movie of the same name. That project was memorable primarily for the chilling performances of its supporting villains: Tilda Swinton, Gavin Rossdale, Peter Stormare, and Djimon Hounsou.

NBC's Constantine, Welsh stage actor Matt Ryan, looks and presumably sounds more like the original comic book character from Vertigo's long-running Hellblazer series, on which both projects are based.

The TV version is, as you might expect, a little toned down. For one thing our sadsack sorcerer doesn't chain smoke, previously Constantine's most salient habit. He's not as incisively cynical and not nearly as devious. The comic book Constantine had a little bit of a flimflam artist in him.

But not since Buffy the Vampire Slayer has there been a prime-time resident so willing to take on evil spirits and powerful demons.

I have to give this series a grade of Incomplete, because some significant changes have been made since the pilot NBC sent me (which is the episode you will see on Friday). Harold Perrineau (Lost) stays as Constantine's decidedly censorious guardian angel, Manny, as does Charles Halford (True Detective) as Constantine's wingman, who drives him around in a classic Checker cab.

But Lucy Griffiths (True Blood) and Jeremy Davies (Justified), two actors I like very much, have left the project. I'm going to reserve final judgment on Constantine until I've seen the new female lead, Angélica Celaya, and the main bad guy, Michael James Shaw as Papa Midnite.

What I can tell you is that Constantine is an unusually dark and spooky show with superior special effects.

It makes a logical Friday-night companion for NBC's Grimm, but I worry the two shows may be too similar in tone to keep audiences committed week after week. Seems like an either/or viewing choice to me, and Grimm already has a loyal core audience.

But Constantine has a couple of advantages: It's playing on a larger canvas than most TV shows and its hero, with his rumpled look and ratty raincoat, has a Columbo-like appeal. Once he gets his foot in the door, he may be hard to get rid of.




10 p.m. Friday on NBC10


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