The following is an abridged version of a five-part series I published on moviepilot.com. There, I compared the short-lived NBC series Constantine to the long-running FX show Justified to show what Constantine should do to succeed on another network…basically, it’s an article about the difference between trope (read: cliché)-ridden network television and the more daring and inventive fare that can often be found on cable. The differences I’ve highlighted can be a good lesson to anyone interested in writing, and not just fans of popular television shows.
We all knew NBC was the wrong home for Constantine. What we didn’t know was that the show would be that damned good! NBC cancelled the “back nine” episodes of the first season and then cancelled the second season last month, never expressing confidence in its long-term value. That fact alone hindered the show’s narrative growth.
Now, as far as we know, showrunner Daniel Cerone is shopping a stack of unfilmed scripts and a second season treatment to other networks, trying to find the show a more stable home before the fall season.
Here is my recommendation for how to make Constantine the BEST show on television by emulating the successful format of the recently ended FX show Justified. I will look at the short-season format, the stand-alone (“monster of the week”) one-offs, character vs. plot in narrative format, the importance of mystery in telling this type of story, and the importance of a compelling villain for developing a hero/anti-hero, using Justified and the Hellblazer source material (as well as other comic book properties) as examples.
I make this comparison simply because John Constantine has long been one of my favorite fictional characters and Justified quickly became one of my favorite television shows of all time (chiefly for the strength of its writing and character development). The comparison makes sense, though, as Daniel Cerone was formerly the showrunner for Dexter, another well-written show that focused on character development and narratives that required an entire (shorter) season to develop. Additionally, key Justified actors (Jeremy Davies as Dickie Bennett and Joelle Carter as Ava Crowder) showed up in Constantine as Ritchie Simpson and Jasmine Fell, respectively. And charismatic backwoods preachers and down-and-out coal miners populated both shows.
First, I argue for a standard 13-episode format:
Constantine, wherever it shows up (I have faith we will see Matt Ryan donning the trench coat again) should stick to the shorter season format. Comic book series are serialized, more appropriately adaptable to a television series than a two-hour movie. Daredevil proved that comic book properties could go the route of a successful drama like Justified by telling a cohesive story as a one-season “maxi-series” rather than the “monster of the week” style a 24- or 26-episode season requires (see Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or Arrow for comic book properties that use too many “fillers” to make it through a long season). A 13-episode maxi-series focuses on characters more productively, providing a more complex, emotionally compelling narrative that moves primary and secondary characters continuously toward a definitive ending. Telling one “big” story each season is a good way to keep the audience engaged.
Justified generally told one big story each season, in 13 episodes, every moment drawing the audience toward one dramatic ending. Not every episode tied directly to the overall plot of the season, but every episode developed the characters in order to enrich the story’s ending. As a comic book property, Constantine stories are already formatted for 10-12 issue stories that can be adapted to the small screen. Why not use what is already there and successful? (And that question applies to ALL comic book properties being adapted to television. Comic book series are basically soap operas on the printed page!)
One-shots, in television and in comic books, provide no risk, no growth, no compelling reason to pay attention.
Except when they do.
Next: “Monster of the Week”
It’s the plague of many television shows, particularly if the season is more than 20 episodes long. Comic book shows like Arrow, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Gotham and even The Walking Dead sometimes meander along well-worn paths through the long stretches of the season, seemingly unable to advance character development or plot points for fear of journeying too close to the inevitable denouement. Of the major network comic book-based shows, The Flash fared the best, but there were periods of stagnant narrative throughout the 23-episode season.
So there should be a rule, right? Yes, but no. Rules were made to be broken.
Justified had several stand-alone episodes in any given season, particularly in the beginning, as the show found its voice. Yet, with only 13 episodes a season, any stand-alone episode necessarily served to further the development of secondary characters to make them more relevant to the overall plot.
A great example is S2e2, “The Life Inside”, in which Raylan and Tim team up to track down a pregnant fugitive whose life is in danger. Throughout the episode, there are minor scenes with peripheral characters connected to the season’s overall plot, but the episode itself is merely “a day in the life” experience for the marshals. Until the end.
A miscreant named Jess holds up behind an overturned sofa, a gun to the pregnant woman’s stomach, assuring the marshals they cannot shoot him without his own gun going off, leaving them to clean up “baby guts.”
Very calmly, Raylan said, “Jess, you ever hear of a spot snipers call the apricot? It’s where the brain stem meets the spine. Hit a fellah there, he ain’t gonna pull no trigger. It’s just lights out.”
Jess laughs. “What, you’re telling me you’re that good?”
Raylan: “Me?” He shakes his head and nods toward Tim.
Jess: “Really? Well, this is how this is going to–“
Tim shot him mid-sentence, right in the “apricot.”
The episode went on for nearly ten more minutes, contributing to a major subplot involving characters Gary and Winona, signifying the fact that a “day in the life” of the marshals did not make the world stop spinning. But that moment, when Tim silently and expertly took out a potential baby killer, that stuck with us. Tim never said much, but when he did, we started to listen. And “The Life Inside” remains one of my favorite episodes of Justified. It made me absolutely love Tim.
Constantine did this unevenly (as many series, including Justified, will do in their first seasons). One of the common complaints about the show was that it continued to offer “monster of the week” episodes instead of contributing real clues about the “big bad” that supposedly loomed in John’s future. For instance, there are great moments in “The Darkness Beneath” as John and Zed interact for the first time, but overall the episode is perhaps the weakest of the season (competing with “Danse Vaudou”, a disappointing introduction to Jim Corrigan).
On the other hand, “Quid Pro Quo” (another stand-alone episode) expertly showcases Chas, finally explaining his power, introducing his wife and daughter, and giving him the opportunity to sacrifice himself in a shocking and satisfying scene near the end, blowing himself up with a grenade in order to take out the powerful sorcerer Felix Faust.
Stand-alone, “monster of the week” episodes can work if used effectively. Using them to risk something for secondary characters and weaving in moments that tie to the season-long primary plot keeps the audience engaged and adds to the emotional depth of these characters as they come to bear on the main character near the season finale. In this way, even traditional “throw away” stories have meaning and keep the numbers up for the studio.
Plot should never diminish character, because character interaction generates drama and drama is why we watch.
Next: when a television show is too concerned with plot structure, character development can suffer.
Network television shows tend to be too formulaic, and the comic book subgenre is no exception. Network television generally suffers from stereotypical plot contrivances intended to meet audience expectations based on past experience of watching network television. In other words, they are all plotted the same way because they are all plotted the same way. How boring.
Here’s an example of how plot contrivances interfere with organic character development:
In the “Suicidal Tendencies” episode of Arrow (s3e17), Diggle and Lyla get married and then are immediately swept into an A.R.G.U.S. Suicide Squad mission to save U.S. Senator Joseph Cray and a group of civilians being held hostage in the Republic of Kasnia. It turns out, however, that Cray had set the whole thing up to turn himself into a public hero so he could run for President. Deadshot sacrificed himself to help the others escape in spectacular Suicide Squad fashion, so the episode did not disappoint!
At least, not until the end.
Arrow has a bad habit of explaining its endings with terse dialogue in order to wrap up each episode in a neat fashion, the plague of “Hollywood Endings” in almost all network television shows. In order to address Senator Cray’s exoneration and the inevitable A.R.G.U.S. cover up, Lyla explains to Diggle that Cray paid off all the witnesses. They sigh heavily and the story ends.
WHAT?!?! I’m sure Deadshot isn’t really dead; this is a comic book show, after all. Even so, his sacrifice deserves a little more than a trite resolution and labored sigh. At the very least, the conversation could have been open-ended, so that neither Diggle nor Lyla know why Cray isn’t being prosecuted.
This, for example:
Lyla: “No one’s talking, I don’t know why. Maybe Cray paid them off.”
Diggle: “Or maybe they’re scared. Cray is obviously a powerful man.”
Boom, that’s how I would’ve written it! Now you have a potential bad guy looming in the background for future episodes and enough mystery to let the viewer speculate on what might have happened behind closed doors. Ending the episode so securely deflates the entire episode, undermines Deadshot’s sacrifice and secures the narrative as a “monster of the week” filler episode with no lasting effect. But, network television shows like their formulaic, neat little endings, right?
Network television too often ignores character completely in preference to traditional plot structures, often forcing characters to behave against what we expect of them in order to provide the necessary well-timed resolution at the end of each episode. I’ll pick on Arrow again to demonstrate.
To fill its 23-episode order, Arrow had to stretch out Oliver’s refusal to join Ra’s al Ghul, resulting in a series of on-again, off-again twists and turns of Queen being exposed as Public Enemy #1, only to have Roy Harper/Arsenal take the fall and get stabbed in prison. This all worked out pretty well, although Arrow does tend to get pretty boring when the same set of conflicts are used over and over and over and over to drive the narratives of so many filler episodes. What ruined this story for me, though, was how it was later revealed (again, with simple dialogue at the end of the episode, in order to provide a solid ending for audience expectations) that an A.R.G.U.S. operative had staged Roy’s death in order to help fake his death and end the hunt for Arrow.
WHAT?!?!? A.R.G.U.S., no matter how shady it is, remains a government organization that tightly controls its operatives. Are we to believe that either an agent went off the grid for a highly illegal side job or that Amanda Waller cooperated with Team Arrow, only to let Roy roam the country with no social ties and no identity, like some Bruce Banner throwback? (Although if latent mirakuru in his system caused Roy to turn into a DC-version red Hulk, I’d watch that spinoff!). The way the episode ended, it felt as though the writers had painted themselves into a plot corner, requiring a deux ex machina resolution that rewards Roy’s sacrifice with a life of aimless wandering.
Much more satisfying would have been a slightly different ending in which Waller planned the whole thing, but now Roy has to train for her and Arsenal becomes a bad ass A.R.G.U.S. operative to redeem himself after killing the cop. The plot would be resolved in a believable, organic manner that increases interest in Roy and his character development (as a superhero gaining more training, no less) and leaves the door open for Arsenal to show up in future episodes with the Suicide Squad. As it is, the ending was flat and ridiculous.
Even so, the difference between the two endings is small. My version refuses to sacrifice character to resolve a plot ending.
Justified (and Daredevil, as an example of a comic book show) structured episode plots differently than network television tradition. I was concerned the quality of the show would drop after the death of Elmore Leonard in 2013, but the final season was amazing.
The culmination of many richly developed characters, compelling new antagonists and slow-boiled subplots introduced over the previous five seasons arguably made the final season the best of all. Every episode of the sixth season served the characters, more soap opera voyeurism than structured plot. The season had a climax, so each episodes did not require one. Most episodes were structured as a series of vignettes, gracefully woven threads of a grand tapestry. As the season progressed, I found myself shocked every time the credits rolled to mark the end of an episode. There were no traditional cues, no neatly resolved endings. Each episode simply paused at a moment in the characters’ lives, to be continued the following week. And I, for one, was deeply engrossed in their fate, impatient for the story to continue.
Daredevil, since I mentioned it, effectively played around with TV tropes, using audience expectations to surprise them. The origin story played out late in the season, through well-designed flashbacks. Characters Karen and Claire were introduced as key to the drama. Antagonist Wilson Fisk appeared first as a name that could not be spoken, then as a vulnerable human seeking love and understanding. And episode two, “The Cut Man” began with Murdock beaten and hiding in a dumpster, a clear signal for a flashback that never arrived. The story simply moved forward, refusing to answer the questions it raised, making for compelling drama.
Character history, narrative longevity, organic narrative development, all combined with the immediacy of knowing that anything can happen: this is the essence of serialized comic book stories. Constantine showed this potential best in the excellent two-parter “Saint of Last Resorts.” If each season were written as one grand narrative, each episode could focus on character development, providing the impetus for true audience loyalty.
Next: Mystery and subtext.
This is a big one for Constantine.
John Constantine is a con artist. A mage. A man of mystery. Jamie Delano’s initial run on Hellblazer included “clips” from local newspapers showcasing the various sides of John’s personality to demonstrate the myriad ways his peers perceived him. As a comic book character, John Constantine has always been a bit like Batman: his true power derives from who he is perceived to be in contradistinction to who he really is.
Of course, in a narrative in which he is the main character, it is difficult to balance the two sides of John’s personality for the audience. How do you introduce an enigma to a new audience and make him relatable at the same time?
Early on in the season, the Constantine writers obviously struggled with this. In ep3, “The Devil’s Vinyl”, John bursts through the glass wall of Ian Fell’s recording studio in order to catch him by surprise and frighten him into telling the truth about the record. But he’s John-frigging-Constantine! As a long-time fan, I was offended.
What I would like to have seen was this:
Ian, engrossed in recording his music, turns around and is startled to find some bloke in a trench coat standing in his personal studio, casually smoking a cigarette.
Ian: “Who are you? How the hell did you get in here?”
John simply smiles and says, “You’ve been busy, Ian.”
THAT’S John Constantine, that is the character the writers should introduce to a novice audience. Now, don’t get me wrong. Matt Ryan is John Constantine. He was a proper asshole when he made Manny mortal for a day (“Angels and Ministers of Grace”), yet filled with regret for betraying his junkie friend Gary (“A Feast of Friends”). Possessed by a powerful demon in “Saint of Last Resorts Part 2”, John took over the prison, attacked gangbangers, insulted his friends, begged Chas to kill him and failed to sound genuine when he offered an apology at the end.
Matt Ryan makes John Constantine real in all his many forms. As such, Constantine is closer to an on-screen version of John we could ever hope for, but, as a fan from the beginning, I still wanted a bit more. With all due respect, of course, the writers presented this side of John more effectively as the season progressed, and certainly seem to have been heading in that direction. For example, in ep5, “Danse Vaudou”, John is locked in the “boot” of Papa Midnite’s car, only to be waiting for him in the backseat when he returns. No explanation needed, he’s John Constantine! Similarly, in the final episode, “Waiting for the Man”, John tricks Midnite with a “glamour spell”, trapping the arguably more powerful mage.
The season started out trying to define and explain everything, however. In the first episode, “Non Est Asylum”, Liv stands in the for the uninitiated audience and John explains everything, taking he naive and vulnerable young woman by the hand and leading her along the narrow path of safety through a world of utter darkness. Luckily, the showrunners quickly abandoned this tact (as John Constantine may be many things, but “wise sage” is not one of them). Even so, throughout the season, John often explained things to Chas and Zed, who stood in for the audience as stronger, less naive versions of Liv. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. Fantasy and sci-fi stories have to build their worlds and show how things work in order to draw the audience in. Still, I’m not sure this tact is appropriate for John (who honestly talked a little too much for my tastes).
There are two possible alternatives.
One: first person narration (and breaking the fourth wall). At heart, John is a bit of a noir detective. Up until the late 90s or so (and intermittently afterward, as in Diggle’s run) John narrated his inner world for the reader. Doing so effectively demonstrated his duplicitous nature, as he would often lie or play coy to the people around him, while his internal dialogue would reveal his true thoughts. This was especially effective when he met Kit, who could see through his lies. Their relationship was so true and powerful simply because John could not lie to her as he did to everyone else. Lying is an important part of who John is; his duplicitous nature makes him a mortal superhero, someone with a public persona and a private identity. Kit was his Lois Lane. If he is not duplicitous, the relationship doesn’t work.
Now, obviously, this is difficult to do on television. First person narration is seen as hokey and outdated these days, yet Kevin Spacey (House of Cards) has proven that by simply turning and speaking the truth into the camera, duplicity can be effectively communicated. I think Constantine can do the same, and it would be awesome!
Two: subtext (and this is trickier). Alan Moore’s Constantine never spoke to the reader (although he also wasn’t the main character in the story, which worked very well for him). Brian Azzarello’s run (which Moore reportedly approved as closest to his personal vision for the character) also never got inside John’s head. The way to demonstrate duplicity and complexity through subtext is through interactions with various, well-developed secondary characters, so that John acts differently in different situations with different people, raising questions among his peers about whether he can truly be trusted.
Constantine attempted to accomplish this efficiently, so that every person from John’s past would tell Zed not to trust John, but she saw Chas’s unwavering devotion to him and decided to ignore the warnings. There were also times (like the wonderful “A Feast of Friends”) when John outright betrayed people who trusted him, and that worked perfectly!
And of course, I would be remiss if I did not use an example from Justified. In the first episode of the series, Raylan shoots a Mafioso and gets transferred back to Kentucky as punishment. At the end of the episode, he shows up on his ex-wife’s patio in the middle of the night, drinking her husband’s beer. It’s obvious he wants (or needs) to talk, but it’s also obvious what he did was neither appropriate nor effective. His reasoning remains a mystery. In the next episode, “Riverbrook”, Raylan and Tim are tracking an escaped bank robber. They visit the man’s ex-wife, who introduces her “cousin” and says she hasn’t seen her ex-husband. As they leave the woman’s trailer, Raylan asks Tim what he got out of the conversation. Tim says that, whether that man is the woman’s cousin, they’re definitely sleeping together and lying about something.
And then he says: “I gotta think, no matter how long you’ve been divorced, seeing your old lady shack up with someone else, that’s gotta annoy the shit out of you.”
Tim casually gets in the car, leaving the camera on Raylan who stands silently for a moment, stewing over Tim’s words. We don’t know what he’s thinking and we don’t know for sure whether Tim was simply talking about the con or using the conversation as a slight against Raylan. Yet, we know how deeply the words hurt Raylan, just by the look on his face: whether his secret nightlife has been exposed, he certainly feels that it has, and now he’s vulnerable, which angers him. (If it had been on the CW, the conversation would have gone on for another five minutes, until each character said exactly what was on his/her mind). All that comes out of a bit of dialogue, the turn of a phrase and a silent look. But it mostly comes from audience participation, my interpretation of the narrative subtext.
For a show about magic, mystery and demons, Constantine has to use subtext effectively to communicate John’s duplicitous nature so that we never know what he might do: so that we are surprised when he does it, yet not surprised that he is capable of doing it. Again, I felt that John, at times, explained too much, serving as guide in this strange world of his. Yet, the true power of the magician, the mage and the con man is misdirection. If all the cards are on the table, the magic disappears. When John appeared from the darkness, all cool and witty, with a cigarette in his hand, this is how Alan Moore envisioned him!
Lastly: does the villain really make the Hero (or Anti-hero, as the case may be)?
Raylan’s arch-nemesis was Boyd Crowder, although this wasn’t always evident. Boyd was introduced in the season premiere as a bomb-making white supremacist bank robber and brother-in-law to Raylan’s soon-to-be sometimes lover Ava, who had just killed her husband (Boyd’s brother) for repeatedly abusing her. The episode ends with a showdown between the three of them: Ava threatens Boyd at the dinner table (just as she had his brother), but Boyd grabs her gun. In the scuffle, Raylan shoots Boyd.
The series premiere was based on Elmore Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole,” whose ending did not go as well for Boyd Crowder:
Raylan saw her jerk the shotgun to her cheek.
Saw Boyd bringing up the Colt, putting it on her. And had no choice.
Raylan pulled and shot Boyd dead center, the force of it punching him out of his chair as Ava in her party dress fired the shotgun and a 12-gauge pattern ripped into the bare wall. It told Raylan he must’ve racked it.
She watched Raylan get up, the gun still in his hand, walk around to Boyd and stoop down over him. “Is he dead?”
Raylan didn’t answer.
She saw him go to his knees then to bend close to Boyd’s face. She believed Raylan said something, a word or two, but wasn’t sure. “Isn’t he dead?”
Raylan got to his feet saying, “He is now.”
Graham Yost, series creator, had bigger plans for Boyd, however. Next episode, Boyd was in a hospital bed, the first of many trips over the series. And in that time, Boyd was a backwoods preacher, a drug runner, an extortionist, an enforcer and a perennially unsuccessful gangster, as well as a conman who denied being any of these things. Although it wasn’t only Raylan who got in his way (Boyd seemed to have the worst luck of any character in television history), it was telling when he finally said, “GD, Raylan, your timing sucks.”
At the same time, Raylan and Boyd had “dug coal together” back in the day, and both their fathers were outlaws in the isolated and impoverished hills of Harlan, Kentucky. If this didn’t make them friends or allies, it certainly made them something akin to brothers, and the bond between them was strong and undeniable.
Raylan sometimes joked that he had to cut back on shooting perps because it was too much paperwork and his peers sometimes questioned his behavior and motives. He was a Fed to the people of Harlan (akin to “the Man”) and many seemed to hate him for the power he wielded over them. He refused to give up his job for the woman he loved and was known to take off his badge or do work after hours, clear abuses of his authority.
Boyd, on the other hand, wanted to settle down with Ava and live a comfortable life. He was a sort of folk hero in the country (better the devil you know) and he often seemed reluctant to resort to violence until Ava went to federal prison in season five. Throughout the series, there were conversations about how Harlan raised young men with only two options: leave or become an outlaw. This set up the dichotomy between Raylan and Boyd in the final season, as two sides of the same coin, the same man with two separate fates.
As such, there would be no Raylan Givens without Boyd Crowder. Boyd was easily one of the most complex, relatable and frightening villains in television history. Late in season five, frustrated by Ava’s incarceration and a failed drug deal, Boyd flipped a switch and became the man you knew he was capable of being. Down on his luck, out of tricks, cornered by very dangerous and powerful men (and a woman, let us know forget the amazing Mary Steenburgen as Katherine Hale) in s5e11, “The Toll”, Boyd attempts to convince Wynn and Picker to accept half of the half of the remaining heroin he has left after the rest was lost.
When all options for resolution are exhausted, he tosses his cigarettes (packed with “two ounces of Emulex on a ten-second timer”) to Picker, reducing his head to a mist of blood. This begins the chain of events that leads to the inevitable showdown in the final season between Boyd, the man who seems to want to do good (but can’t escape his circumstances) and Raylan, who enforces his own brand of justice (yet is commonly judged by his peers as crossing the line).
The implication, of course, is this: if not for Boyd, there’s a good chance Raylan would be an outlaw.
So does a hero need a villain?
In his book The Old Enemy, Neil Forsyth talks about the history of the “combat myth” as a “combat narrative” trope found to be common across many cultures in many myths. The “combat myth” generally takes a form similar to this: an event marks a threat, an individual accepts the challenge, the hero is granted gifts of shining power, the hero wins a decisive battle, the hero triumphs and then is enthroned as the king. According to this trope, Forsyth says, the hero needs an adversary to become the hero. The tale of how the hero-god-king defeated the threat to society (generally a water-serpent chaos monster) and established his rule of order over chaos justifies the authority of the society who writes the tale.
After all, this is the function of myth, to explain why things are the way they are. Or, as Bruce Lincoln succinctly defines myth: “Ideology in narrative form.”
Raylan givens represents federal law, his badge the symbol of authority in our society. Yet, as an individual, he is deadly, a seasoned and capable killer. He needs Boyd, who represents the chaos of individual wish fulfillment picking away at the foundation of societal order, to make him a hero. Otherwise, he would simply be a killer with a badge, “justified” to carry out his own form of justice.
Without Boyd, Raylan would be the outlaw.
Comic books are part of our society’s process of myth-making, and John Constantine, as the anti-hero con artist and habitual liar, is our modern mythological hero.
In a fractured, post-modern world of competing ideologies, John is the everyman, the working class bloke who has peeked behind the curtain, and he flips is fingers at all of it: family, industry, politics, law enforcement, religion, Satan and God and all the powers that be, because he knows it’s all just a big power play and he refuses to take a side other than his own.
In many ways, he is the hero Job, who Forsyth describes as such: “Rarely may the problem of suffering be approached with the insight of Job’s author, who balances a rebellious Promethean defiance against a God who, as the omnipotent creator, finds the merely human notion of justice absurd” (121). This is John Constantine, who sees Heaven and Hell as so far beyond the human condition that they have no legitimacy for him. His path is his own, for better or worse. Every other path is fraught with lies, so a man might as well take the path of lies he’s told himself.
No matter how dark his path, John is a sort of hero, if the showrunners allow him to be. Just as Raylan Givens is a zealot with a gun and only a hero in contrast to the man who threats his social order, John is a punk at heart, the monkey wrench gumming up the gears of reality. He’s not a good man, God love him, but he’s the man who’s willing to peer into the darkness.
A want a real-life John Constantine, because that’s what I’ve always loved about John: the horrors he faces are fantasy, but the will he summons to confront them are real, because, in the end, John Constantine is only human.
He needs a villain none of us are willing to face alone, so he can be our hero.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my blog and thank all of you who have read and left me comments on the original series. Until next time, Save Constantine!