“A blue-collar X-Files” is by no means a bad goal for a show to strive for. The overarching mystery/horror formula is perfect for TV, giving steady development toward a central, overarching goal or unanswered question, while also taking plenty of breaks for diversions, in the form of “monsters of the week.” It’s a safe, comfortable format that audiences have been familiar with ever since Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
That seems to be what NBC’s Constantine is going for, as the show unveils the formula that episodes will apparently follow over the course of its first season. Episode one gave us the literal macguffin that will power the entire rest of the season: a blood-stained map, where the flecks of red show the location of impending calamities, all tied to the “incoming darkness” that was mandatory in a supernaturally-themed drama. All Constantine needs to do is take a look at that map from episode to episode before deciding on the next town or city to hit along the way—it couldn’t be more simple for him. Lo and behold, we have ourselves a supernatural road trip, with John Constantine as our driver. It’s like watching Quantum Leap, if Scott Bakula’s task was fighting demons in every episode.
In episode two, “The Darkness Beneath,” those demons are coming from below, quite literally. The map leads our hero to a Western Pennsylvania coal mining town, ‘a la October Sky, where miners are hearing strange knockings in the depths, as if they’ve delved too deep and awakened the local Pennsylvania Balrog. Constantine must get to the bottom of a local mystery that involves the deaths of several miners, including a man roasted alive by his own shower head, which belches a stream of flames onto him in an amusingly grotesque sequence. It’s not particularly inspired stuff, and builds to a twist ending that most audience members will see coming from the halfway point.
Regardless, there’s not a lot of memorable stuff here, which is the downside of doing what almost amounts to an anthology series—each episode must be assessed completely on its own merits. Indeed, there’s almost no connection between this episode and the pilot, besides Constantine. The new town contains its own set of characters, but at least sets us up with a new companion/love interest called Zed, who can be expected to join the main cast. Like Liv in the first episode, she possesses a particular skill set that Constantine doesn’t have, which is obviously necessary to give her character any perceived value. In this case, she’s something of a clairvoyant, and her visions help expedite things along. Her visions of Constantine in particular cause her to draw dozens of pictures/paintings of him in her living quarters, which leads to the episode’s best Easter egg for comics fans: some half of her images are vintage Hellblazer covers, which is a nice way to work the source material into the series in a visual way.
Perhaps most concerning, though, is the viewer’s eventual realization of how this show seems to shoot action sequences. They’re all bizarrely rushed, and are interrupted by some of the most egregious and jarring commercial breaks I’ve ever seen on network TV. Action sequences simply END in mid-motion for a commercial break, and rather than being cliffhangered, are already over when we return—it’s as if the director is hoping you forgot what was happening a few minutes earlier. One moment, John Constantine is running through a collapsing mine, stumbling, falling … and now he’s at a house party? Wait, what?
“The Darkness Beneath” makes very little progress at advancing the central Constantine story other than introducing Zed, and is not nearly unique enough to stand on its own as compelling “monster of the week” fare. If this is what the show will typically resemble without the oversight of pilot director Neil Marshall, it may have trouble reaching the simple pleasures of its pulpy premise.
Jim Vorel is News Editor at Paste and a long-time Hellblazer reader. He hopes they’ll eventually adapt the storyline where Constantine convinces the devil to drink some holy water.