R.I.P. Constantine: What we learned from the death of NBC's Hellblazer show

Well, bollocks. It appears Constantine is officially done. On Sunday, June 7, showrunner Daniel Cerone announced via Twitter that the cast and writers had been released from their contracts and "the show is over."

The announcement came 30 years to the month after the character first appeared in The Saga of Swamp Thing #37 in June 1985. 

Cerone's tweet was joined by fond farewell messages from cast and crew, along with pretty upset tweets from fans. Like a prophecy about the rising darkness, however, the writing has been on the wall for some time for the show based on the long-running Vertigo and DC Comics title. But fans, known as Hellblazers, and those involved in the show have all hoped it would be saved. 

I was one of those fans, and have been vocal in my support for the series and enthusiastic coverage of it. Also voicing support were CW superheroes Stephen Amell and Grant Gustin, as well as William Shatner.

So let's reflect back on the series and discuss what was right and what led to its downfall. Also: Is there hope for the future?

It got it right

If you watched the first, or even second (and maybe the third) episode of Constantine, made a judgment and gave up on it, then I'd argue you didn't really check out this series. The pilot was, well, a pilot. It provided a taste of Matt Ryan as occult detective John Constantine, and gave a sense of what the show could offer. The second episode, "The Darkness Beneath," had to serve as a secondary pilot because it introduced a secondary lead after Angelica Celaya replaced Lucy Griffiths. 

In the third ep, we meet Papa Midnite (played excellently by Michael James Shaw), and the show appeared to be finding its footing. But I would suggest people view Episode 4, "A Feast of Friends," to see where the show would go. This is where Ryan really settled into the role, and where we see the dark implications of his work in the world. It more closely ties to the Hellblazer comics as it introduces audiences to Gary Lester (Jonjo O'Neill), a guy who suffers because of his friendship with Constantine. 

From there, the show kept getting better. By network standards, the stories got downright dark; the finale, "Waiting for the Man," was one of the most unsettling episodes of this TV season and belonged alongside Hannibal. Plus, we were treated to more characters and plots recognizable from the comics.

It was made by fans

Comic fans initially bemoaned the lack of a chain-smoking, sexually promiscuous protagonist. But, after it seemed like the grown-ups at NBC stopped paying attention, that's precisely who we got.

Ryan so perfectly embodied a younger John Constantine it was almost eerie. He slipped right into the role and knew the material. He was taking a long view of how he could evolve the character and get to iconic storylines like "Dangerous Habits."

One got the sense that Ryan, Cerone, Celaya, Harold Perrineau, Charles Halford and everyone involved appeared to actually be fans of it.

They could handily refer to deep cuts of the comic continuity. The set was loaded with easter eggs connecting Constantine to a larger DC universe (I really wanted to see them talk about that Doctor Fate helmet!), and it frequently borrowed from comic covers and panel artwork. 

We also got Jim Corrigan, aka The Spectre! 

At the end of the day, fandom and enthusiasm doesn't pay the bills

The NBC series never quite caught on in the ratings -- by network metrics. In its Friday night timeslot, it maintained about 3 million live viewers week to week, with some fluctuation on either side, and was a decent DVR performer (add in a million and change more). Meanwhile, Constantine's sibling Grimm on the same night/network routinely hovers right around 5 million live viewers. 

Constantine's season ended in February after it failed to receive a full-season order. Cerone communicated to the Hellblazers then that the show wasn't canceled, and he then had a meeting with NBC execs that "went well" in April. Still, the network declined to renew it as of early May, and rumors of a Syfy pickup proved unfounded. Hope that The CW would give the DC Entertainment/Warner Bros.-produced comic-book show a home -- and make it part of its DCU TV-verse with The Flash, Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow -- fizzled when the cable network failed to mention it at mid-May's upfront presentations. Likewise, no streaming platforms coughed up the dough to continue this fairly expensive production (though just imagine how wicked cool this show could have been on Netflix, where they wouldn't have to play by the same network censorship rules!).

Had Constantine landed on The CW, it would be a reliable hit if it maintained its viewership (according to TV By the Numbers, Arrow's third season averaged 2.76 million viewers). One could argue it would have bridged the gap between the supernatural and superhero programming on that channel. Speaking of Supernatural, there is so much Hellblazer DNA in that show, it might have been a good programming block -- and could be used now as a replacement if/when the Winchester boys retire. 

But I digress. My point: Ratings still matter on television. 

We live in an age of fan groups with a "Goonies Never Say Die" verve. I love that, and to be fair, there lately seems like a lot of examples of not-dead-yet shows resurrected through the tenacity of supporters and cast. Celeb boosters and an active fan base that can make a show trend each week, or one that launches renewal petitions, are visible and loud. Yet they still don't necessarily equate to eyeballs on the screen on the day the show airs. Networks need ad revenue, and buying advertisements somewhere like NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox ain't cheap. So advertisers want to put those dollars into a program where they're getting a lot of bang for their bucks.

Watching a couple days, or more than three, after the fact doesn't help much. I'm part of the problem; as much as I enjoyed Constantine, I didn't always watch it within the first three days of its airing. So there is certainly a lesson to be learned there about the changing nature of viewership. 

Superhero and comic book shows are not invulnerable

The pop-culture landscape is currently dominated by funny-book source material, with a new comic-book-based show or movie seemingly being greenlit daily. Everyone wants in on the superhero universe action, including NBC. I am certain they did not want the show to tank (even if I wished they'd given it more love and support). 

Constantine's death partly makes me wonder if comic-book TV fatigue is setting in. As good a show as it was, the comic-book connection didn't bring out enough viewers. But I think the larger lesson here is that a network needs to think a little more about what kind of super-series might fit best with them. Supergirl "fits" at CBS, in my opinion. And the dark, occult (and potentially very absurd -- like evil monkey absurd) plotlines of Constantine would fit somewhere like HBO or Netflix, but maybe NBC wasn't the best place for it.

If the cancellation of Constantine leads to other studios or networks thinking twice about moving forward on a comic-book property just because they can, and not thinking whether they should, then maybe this is a good thing.

There is hope, yet -- sort of

I'll just say it: Matt Ryan is not done with this character. I may now seem like an overly optimistic fanboy destined to be disappointed (again), but my gut tells me he should hold on to the trench coat.

Here's the deal. Just because The CW isn't picking up Constantine doesn't mean they can't use the character. After all, Warner Bros. owns the rights to him. 

On a panel I hosted at Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con, Stephen Amell told me he wanted to bring Matt Ryan's John Constantine on Arrow as a Lazarus Pit expert. This can still happen. Moreover, Legends of Tomorrow's Big Bad will be Vandal Savage, an immortal figure who has had several dealings with magic in the comic books.

The CW could seed Ryan throughout its other series, slowly building the character's popularity –- not unlike the way it did with Brandon Routh's Ray Palmer. When the time is right, or the programming schedule allows it, a Constantine show could in theory return in some form.

And if Guillermo del Toro ever gets around to filming his Justice League Dark script, we know that Constantine is in there. Furthermore, del Toro has previously said he would consider keeping the same actor in the role.

One thing is for certain: While the Cerone and David Goyer's version of Constantine may be done and the actors released -- hopefully moving on to other projects swiftly -- the character has survived 30 years of comics, and one really bad Keanu Reeves movie. After facing off against all manner of evil beasts and magical threats, not even network execs can kill him off for good.

Speaking of which, Constantine production designer Dave Blass has a final message for the networks ...


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