I’m not a Hellblazer fan. Never read the series. But as a defender of the criminally underrated 2005 Constantine film, I was excited for the NBC series of the same name. Unfortunately, the trouble with that began even before it premiered in September.
In July a slew of news broke about the still in production series that was worrisome. First, the actress appearing in the pilot and all the promotional trailers and ads, Lucy Griffiths, previously from True Blood, was cut from the series and replaced with another woman. The new female lead was Angela Celaya, playing the character Zed, who is actually from the comic series. For both narrative consistency and demographic diversity, this was a good move. As we’ll see later, reality didn’t mean expectations.
Another cut announced early before the series premiere were the title character’s constant chain-smoking and his less frequently referenced but just as important bisexuality. Though network television standards have no problem with graphic violence, demon possession, and gruesome disfigurement, lighting up a cigarette is apparently a bridge too far for delicate American audiences. This is what we get letting government regulate the airwaves.
And although it isn’t strictly against FCC standards, the show’s producers also decided John Constantine’s occasional sexual encounters with men weren’t important enough to risk alienating viewers. What year is it again? Network shows develop huge cult followings with same-sex content. (Full disclosure: I didn’t realize until today that Constantine was bisexual. #TheMoreYouKnow)
These censorship issues aside, the main problem with Constantine is, sorry to say, Zed. Or rather, the actress playing her. I can forgive terrible acting from bit players and one-off characters, but one of only five regular characters cannot be a ham-fisted mess. Celaya’s acting is simply awful. Her accent flips from New Jersey swagger to Bronx chicana within a scene. She constantly overacts. When the scene calls for a curious gaze, she cranes her neck and squints intensely.
Every other regular character is played perfectly. John is grumpy and crass but lovable. Chas is mysterious and friendly. Manny is aloof and cynical. Papa Midnight is enterprising and conflicted.
What’s most frustrating about Celaya’s ruinous performance is that her character is so promising. We don’t yet know what her back story is, but two of the last three episodes have hinted that some of it will be revealed soon. Her power to see and illustrate clues about metaphysical conflicts going on in the world are important to the procedural detective format of the show. But every time she’s on the screen I want to turn it off.
Ironically, the show has already proven they can go on without her. In the “Rage of Caliban” episode two weeks ago, she was unexpectedly absent. It’s assumed that this episode was supposed to air before her character was introduced, but airing it six episodes in suggests she might not be around forever.
Not coincidentally, this episode was the best of the series so far, by far. It was tight, weightless, and genuinely creepy. There was no unnecessary faux-romantic tension, and the only overacting was from a minor episodic character.
Contrast that with the following episode, “Blessed Are the Damned“, which should have been a brilliant setup for the larger narrative of the inter-angelic conflict affecting events in the world. Instead, Zed’s return made it a messy, awkward turkey dinner. Her gawking around a barn for an angel only Constantine can see is one of the most excruciating things on television in years.
However, the timing of NBC’s decision to halt production on the series at only half a season could be fortuitous. With seven aired episodes aired, they’ve laid the groundwork for Zed’s back story. The next six episodes give them just enough time to get that back story explained before they kill her off. That should be all the incentive the studio needs to throw their full support behind Constantine, finish the second half of the season, and renew it for a second.