This fall is seeing a huge crop of comic-book TV shows, and one of the most promising is Constantine. The trench-coated antihero who copes with the unsavory side of magic is getting a more faithful portrayal. Except he won't smoke. And now we're hearing his sexuality will be toned down too. Does it matter?
At the Television Critics Association Q&A over the weekend, executive producer David Cerone was asked if Constantine would be bisexual, the way he is in the comics. In response, Cerone broke down all the different versions of the character who've appeared over the years, to prove bisexuality wasn't a major part of the character. And then, according to EW, he added:
In those comic books, John Constantine aged in real time. Within this tome of three decades [of comics] there might have been one or two issues where he's seen getting out of bed with a man. So [maybe] 20 years from now? But there are no immediate plans.
The producers also said that it wasn't as if Constantine would be a non-smoker — we might see him stubbing something out from time to time.
For the record, I've read dozens of Hellblazer comics over the years, and I can't remember seeing much indication that John Constantine was bisexual or pansexual. But he's a character who's appeared in hundreds and hundreds of comics over the years, so who knows? But it's fair to say that smoking is more integral to the character than sexuality is. At the same time, we don't have nearly enough queer characters on television — especially not heroic ones.
[Edited to add: I didn't mean to skate over this issue quite so glibly — blame deadlines and pre-Comic-Con phone calls. I do think erasing queer people from pop culture is a shitty thing to do, and we desperately need more pop culture that represents the whole range of human sexuality. And it really wouldn't have cost much for them to include an aside about ex-boyfriends along with ex-girlfriends. At the same time, to me the most important aspect of John Constantine is not who he fucks, but who he fucks over. ]
At the same time, it looks as though Constantine is taking over the Friday night slot previously occupied by Dracula, a show in which it appeared as though every single character was A) bisexual and B) into some pretty weird edgeplay. So you would expect this show to have a bit of leeway. Plus isn't that also the Hannibal timeslot?
In any case, it's way too early to tell how this will wind up affecting the show — we'll know more when we've watched a half season of it. I'm more worried by the reports that they're reshooting a scene in the pilot to make Liv, the show's original lead, less of a badass and more of a "damsel in distress" — because they want to make it easier to write her out of the show after a few episodes.
But the larger question — and the one we won't know the answer to until the show's been on for a while — is how much are they toning down the character of John Constantine, in an attempt to make this a show that will appeal to the wider audiences that watched Grimm but not Dracula? And can a Constantine show work if he's not kind of an asshole?
I definitely think the "asshole" thing is integral to the character, and if there's one thing standing in the way of networks that want to reach the critical acclaim (and ratings) of cable shows like Game of Thrones or True Detective, it's the unwillingness to let characters have rough edges. We've all learned that television characters don't have to be admirable, or lovable, to be fascinating — but to make a severely flawed character fascinate audiences requires really great acting, and enough space to let it shine. Something network TV has a hard time providing.
That's why, for example, a show like Under The Dome starts out looking like a character study of people who go to some pretty dark places — Junior chaining up his ex-girlfriend, Barbie sleeping with the woman whose husband he murdered — but then veers into an endless series of plot devices and mysteries. What do the butterflies mean? How about the glowing egg? Why is the dome changing colors? Etc. etc.
To some extent, I blame the idea of "watercooler television" — the notion that the best way to get people to watch a network show live instead of a week or a month later is by making sure everybody's talking about it the next day. And somehow, this turns into having lots of emphasis on surprising turns of events, or plot twists, instead of striking character moments.
I don't have much more to say about this, but luckily Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles creator Josh Friedman had some comments last night on Twitter about why it's so hard to make room for small character moments on network TV shows, and I'm just going to cherry pick some of the best bits below, because it's all such great stuff: