"All trench coat and arrogance" is how John Constantine describes his roguish, demon-fighting self. His business card reads "Exorcist, Demonologist and Master of the Dark Arts," though he cautions "petty dabbler" may be closer to the mark, as "I hate to put on airs." Wielding his jaded, sardonic attitude as a shield to cloak him from the worst the netherworld has to offer, the wearily witty Constantine (as embodied by the appealingly droll Welsh actor Matt Ryan) is one hell of a great character.
And NBC's Constantine is one of the best, also one of the last of the new network shows to premiere this fall (Friday, 10/9c). A near-perfect companion piece to the similarly creepy-quirky Grimm, this lavish adaptation of the DC Comics Hellblazer series is the freakiest and most stylized fantasy pilot since Sleepy Hollow, and Ryan's instant grasp of this cocky but battered hero will make it easy to forget that Keanu Reeves ever went there.
Bonus points to the show's creators (including David S. Goyer and Daniel Cerone) for realizing the weak spot in the pilot episode: naïve protégée Liv (Lucy Griffiths), a mostly passive observer to the explosive havoc that surrounds her. After Constantine saves her from a fiery sinkhole — some pretty wild effects here that we hope future episodes can match — Liv's eyes are opened to a shadow world of trapped souls on Earth. "If you're not confused, you're not paying attention," Constantine barks at her — but it's less confusion than ennui that marks Griffith's wan performance. (After contriving a sudden exit for Liv at the end of the revised pilot, week two will introduce a tougher heroine from the comics: Zed, played by Angélica Celaya. NBC hasn't made future episodes available, so we'll have to take it on faith that she'll be an improvement.)
Though there are other supernatural sidekicks in Constantine's orbit — the resilient, burly and loyal Chas (Charles Halford), a nagging angel named Manny (Lost's Harold Perrineau) — the title character is reason enough to watch. More cynical than Supernatural's Winchester brothers, almost as quippy as the beloved Buffy, Ryan's Constantine is terrific company for any monstrous apocalypse. "Whoever you are, I'm a nasty piece of work!" he bellows in introduction to an unseen demon. Nasty but fun, a winning combination that almost feels heaven sent.
GOING GAGA FOR STANDARDS: By the time the living legend and the pop diva close their sizzling set with "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," any generation gap dissolves in the pure love for the American songbook, in what amounts to a throwback to the classic variety specials many of us still miss. At 88, the remarkable Tony Bennett — one of the last remaining luminaries from that era — can still deliver the goods, and his solo rendition of "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" is the soaring highlight of PBS's frothy Great Performances special Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga: Cheek to Cheek Live! (Friday, 9/8c, check tvguide.com listings). Bennett's rapport with Lady Gaga seems genuine, and they have a sweet, unforced musical chemistry in these selections from their current album of standards.
I attended the late-summer taping of this special, which took considerably longer than the hour seen on PBS — much of the time spent waiting for Lady Gaga's plentiful costume and wig changes (I counted at least seven). Cooling his classy heels between songs, Bennett joked to the audience, "I can't wait to get back in show business." But the trouper didn't even seem all that rattled when Gaga reappeared at one point in red leather jumpsuit and afro fright wig, channeling Cher (or possibly SCTV's Andrea Martin) as she belted, "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)." Well, as they sing at the start of the program, "Anything Goes." And much of it goes down quite nicely.
PROUD AND PREJUDICIAL: In a genteel mash-up of two of PBS viewers' favorite and most ubiquitous Masterpiece authors, Jane Austen and mystery queen P.D. James, the two-part Masterpiece Mystery! adaptation of James' Death Comes to Pemberley (Sunday, 9/8c, check tvguide.com listings) brings discord to the sylvan paradise of Darcy and Lizzie's happier-ever-after. The fabled Pride and Prejudice couple, here played by The Americans' Matthew Rhys (an interesting change of pace) and Anna Maxwell Martin (The Bletchley Circle) as contented and loving parents of privilege, are soon embroiled in scandal and murder, thanks to the unwelcome reappearance of that scoundrel Wickham (The Good Wife's Matthew Goode), accompanied by his giddy paramour Lydia (Doctor Who's Jenna Coleman), Elizabeth's flibbertigibbet younger sister.
Lydia's hysterical entrance, literally screaming bloody murder on the night of an annual society ball, leads to the discovery of a crime scene implicating Wickham as the most likely culprit. As an inquest and trial looms, threatening ruin to Darcy's good name, our romantic heroes become sleuths in a diverting melodrama that generally lacks the charm of the best of Austen or the intrigue of the best of James. Still, it's a chance to revisit some of literature's most-loved characters, and those of a warped mind could flip back and forth between PBS and AMC's The Walking Dead and pretend they're actually watching Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Which would be a whole different kind of death coming to Pemberley, to be sure.