Thursday, November 6, 2014

Pilot Season: Constantine (Manages to Offend Everyone)

I really want to like Constantine. I do. But I don't. Like it, that is. I want to like it, but I really really can't stand it because somehow this one show has managed in two short episodes to offend pretty much everything I stand for. At least when it comes to the representation of women and people of color in the media.

Granted, I'm not really the best person to ask about adaptations of the Hellblazer comics. I genuinely enjoyed the 2005 movie starring Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz, so much so that I still own it on DVD. And while I am pretty generally informed about the original comics, I've never counted myself a fan. They're okay, but not my cup of tea.

All of this is to say that it's not really shocking that I don't particularly care for Constantine the television show. It could easily have gone either way. What is surprising, though, is how the show actually turned out. Or rather, how an obscure comic title about a superpowered, bisexual, libertine exorcist became a racist, insulting parody of itself. Because make no mistake, this show is racist. It's not racist in the usually recognized sense of the word, where you have a character spewing racist venom at black people, but it's still definitely racist. 

The basic premise of the show is as follows: John Constantine (Matt Ryan) is an exorcist, and a good one, but he's quit the work after the tragic death of a girl he was trying to save. That little girl (Bailey Tippen) haunts his waking and sleeping life, keeping him from emotionally moving. He's even shut himself up in an insane asylum to get away from the memories. But he's called out once again when an old (dead) friend asks John for help.

Said dead friend wants John to rescue his daughter, Liv (Lucy Griffiths). Liv is unaware of the fact that her biological father was a powerful exorcist/master of the black arts, but she is aware that something evil is trying to kill her. Cue for John to swoop onto the scene, rock her worldview by telling her all about heaven and hell and the demons that are out there in the world, and save her life. He manages to kill the demon that's after her, and in so doing, exposes a "rising evil" that will probably end the world.

At the end of the episode he decides to scare Liv off and send her back to her old life, so that he can go on, alone, tragically enduring the weight of the world. If by alone we mean actually accompanied by his friend Chas (Charles Halford), a taxi-driving mother hen who apparently is really hard to kill.

Also Harold Perrineau plays an angel who shows up every once in a while to give cryptic messages and creep everyone out. Which means that in terms of racial representation in this pilot episode we have a dead little black girl who is supposed to signify innocence and stuff, a literal magical black man, and that's pretty much it. Well, at the end of the episode there is also a bit where the lead female character runs across a crime scene. At that crime scene? A screaming and wailing middle-aged black woman, standing over the body of her dead son. In other words, the only people of color in the first episode are set pieces meant to illustrate the horror in the world and particularly in the black community, and to develop the character of the white female lead.

Basically, the first episode is not great about representing non-white characters. Nor is it good at representing women. Liv is a spineless, whining, perpetually frustrating cardboard cutout of a character, and her mother is signified only by the fact that she lied about the origin of Liv's father. Astra, the little dead girl, is the only other significant female character in the episode, and she's dead.

The second episode is actually somehow even worse on both fronts. This episode has John traveling to rural Pennsylvania (I think) on a case - something is killing local coal miners. Once in town, he runs into Zed (AngĂ©lica Celaya), a psychic artist who's been seeing visions of John. He blows her off for most of the episode before finally admitting he needs help when the vengeful spirits try to kill him. And then he ditches her again when he goes to confront the actual bad guy.

The actual bad guy's identity? It's the wife of one of the men who was killed, a Romani woman who resents the way her (probably abusive) husband treated her and so got revenge. Now, on the surface I might be okay with that, because we see so few representations of the Roma in pop culture and the media that it's always nice to see another, but this was probably the most offensive thing I've seen in years. John confronts her, basically explains how everything she did is wrong and petty, and then says, and I quote, "there's nothing blacker than a gypsy's magic."

Just to explain, the Roma already have to deal with centuries of racism and ill-treatment in the European community. On top of that, they rarely if ever are represented in popular culture. When they are, unfortunately, like this, they are frequently called "gypsies" - a racial slur - and there is an undercurrent of hatred and degradation towards them. 

It's the second episode, and John Constantine just casually does the equivalent of calling a black person a lazy negro, and the narrative shows that said person is in fact the ultimate bad guy and terrible. I hope you see why this is a problem. 

Furthermore, the episode is horrible about women. Zed, while hypothetically interesting, is presented as a lazy and shiftless Latina who can only use her magical powers when the white man helps her do it. She is completely dependent on John, obsessed with him, and stalking him. The only other woman in the episode is the villain, a Romani woman who killed a dozen people or so because she didn't like her husband, and who tried to seduce John the first time she met him and then got him beat up because he said no.

I cannot think of another show this year that has been so casually racist and offensive. Can you?

On the one hand, that is kind of a good thing. Not that this show is so racist and horrible and sexist, but that it's hard to think of another show this bad. Pop culture as a whole is getting better. Constantine is an outlier, not the norm. Yay! But it still bothers me that a show coming out in 2014 manages to be as regressive and insulting as, well, Supernatural. Which I love, but is still my benchmark for shows that deal with race and sex in the most insulting way possible about ninety percent of the time.

The thing is, it would be so easy for this show not to be offensive. Like, it would literally be easier. Zed has all the makings of a truly compelling character, if the writers can manage to stop making her into John's psycho stalker who neeeeeeds him. Liv could have been compelling, but she was written off in the first episode so that we could all understand how hard it is that John has to go through life alone. Heck, the show could have given Harold Perrineau more to do and I would probably be happier. It's like they're actively trying to make this show offensive.

The worst part is, all of this offensive stuff actually makes the show bad. It's not a good show. Because none of the female characters make any sense, their narratives make no sense, and therefore the episodes are dry and flat. Because John Constantine is so wrapped up in his machismo and loner hero thing, he's not very interesting or compelling. The regressive politics of this show are actually killing it.

So unless this show gets gutted and fixed in the next episode or so, I'm going to call for a mercy killing. Most of these actors probably are very good in a different setting, and the property itself has potential. Let's let it go, and see if maybe, in the future, someone can make a show about John Constantine that's actually good.

But it's definitely not this one.

I would love to actually like you as a character.


  1. Finally, a show I disliked before you pointed out its flaws

    1. Ruining things you love. It's my best skill.

  2. I genuinely enjoyed the 2005 movie starring Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz, so much so that I still own it on DVD.

    So do I, and I *am* a fan of (most runs of) Hellblazer. Sure I don't think it's a great adaptation, but it's a good film on its own merits.

    It's like they're actively trying to make this show offensive.

    I wouldn't be entirely surprised if they are. In the sense that John is often a pretty offensive person, so they try to have him act offensively - in the most lazy way possible - but don't have the guts to actually pull the trigger on making him bad, so they also vindicate him.

    Mercy killing sounds like the best bet.

    1. It's just so enjoyable! Like, Keanu Reeves is deadpan gold, Rachel Weisz is buttkicking but still accessible, and Tilda Swinton is the androgynous, ambiguous angel we never knew we wanted... I should really write something about that movie.

      I hadn't thought of that. If they are trying to play off of John's personality, though, they're doing a bad job of it. You're right. It would be a lot more interesting if he were just plain a bad person, instead of a nominally sympathetic racist and sexist one.

    2. Yes, yes, review the movie please!

  3. So unless this show gets gutted and fixed

    Well, with the random murderous homeless guy and the withering contempt for "voodoo," I don't see gutting and fixing.

    Plus, so far, I think Zed would make the more interesting protagonist.

    1. I couldn't even bring myself to watch this most recent episode. But yeah, I think Zed has potential that John doesn't. And since his name is the one on the show, there's not much hope of her getting to explore that potential. Blargh.

  4. Am I the only person who does not like it because it's on NBC. Also English people don't talk like that.