There's one true antihero in DC Comics' colorful TV invasion, a scruffy blond British bloke rocking a trench coat.
Like the stars of Arrow, Gotham, and The Flash, the conjurer-cum-demon hunter at the center of NBC's scary new supernatural thriller Constantine saves the world a lot. But unlike his genre peers, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking John Constantine relies on his wits and cunning and is willing to sacrifice friends and lovers when he deems it necessary. Sometimes it's for a greater good; sometimes it's just to survive. "He's a jerk whose actions are often morally questionable," executive producer David S. Goyer (a writer on recent DC Comics-based movie hits Batman Begins and Man of Steel) admits bluntly.
Despite — or perhaps because of — Constantine's character flaws, comic book fans have faithfully followed the character's macabre misadventures in a world filled with demons, ghosts, vampires, and monsters since 1985, when he was introduced in The Saga of the Swamp Thing. The magician went on to star in Vertigo's noirish horror series Hellblazer, then successfully segued into Constantine, DC's slightly sanitized current series. (Perhaps the less said about the 2005 big-screen version starring Keanu Reeves the better.)
Matt Ryan (Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior), a Welsh actor with a Royal Shakespeare Company pedigree, beat out hundreds of rivals to land the iconic role in its first TV incarnation. "There are a lot of moving targets when you bring an established property to television, especially one with such a loyal fan base," executive producer Daniel Cerone says, "but we've felt consistently confident in the fact that we had the right guy." Many fans who caught the trailer online or who watched the pilot at this summer's San Diego Comic-Con agree, praising the actor for both his working-class British accent and spiky blond 'do.
Loosely following Hellblazer's trajectory, Constantine opens six months after the self-described master of the dark arts has botched an exorcism of a young girl, sending her soul to Hades. Haunted by his fatal error, he's sequestered in an English psychiatric hospital when a message from the beyond spurs him to travel to Atlanta (where the show is filmed) to help Liv Aberdine (Lucy Griffiths), an old friend's daughter who is besieged by demons.
Liv is the first target of "a rising dark force," says Cerone. "We want to create a road show that has an epic feel with serialized arcs that run through the season but also offers forms of evil that John can face on a weekly basis." To that end, the mysterious entity targeting Liv will let loose an army of slimy supernaturals whose goal is to destroy humanity. The wannabe savior goes where the wild things are as he searches for the source of the darkness.
Originally planned to be Constantine's wide-eyed protégée, the newly created character of Liv was written out after the pilot. "We decided we'd be better served with a strong character from the comic book world who could go toe-to-toe with John," says Cerone. That would be Zed, the first woman Constantine was involved with in Hellblazer. "She's a psychic with a traumatic childhood," Goyer says.
"Zed's a very tough cookie," says Angélica Celaya, who plays the rebellious young woman and makes her entrance in the second episode. "She won't take John's crap — she'll give as much as he does. They have wicked chemistry."
Constantine may have yet another unexpected ally: a warrior angel named Manny (Lost's Harold Perrineau), a new character who has been sent to alert Constantine to the dark force and its manifestations. Not that Manny likes the gig. "He's not fond of the way humans, who are God's favorites, are messing up the world," says Perrineau, "and he has some anger and jealousy issues about that." No matter their issues, Ryan says, "They can both use each other. I see them as gunslingers trying to figure each other out."
Aside from Manny, the show leans heavily on what Goyer calls "the series' core DNA," with canonical characters sprinkled through the season, including hacker and metaphysics professor Ritchie Simpson (Jeremy Davies, another Lost alum), voodoo king Papa Midnite (newcomer Michael James Shaw), and possibly Constantine's demon nemesis Nergal. It also ventures further into the DC universe, pulling in cop Jim Corrigan (who becomes God's enforcer, the Spectre) as a recurring character.
Constantine's one loyal aide is taxi driver Chas (Charles Halford). "John's a tough one to love," Halford says. "But Chas is a bit of a Robin to him, there for anything that John might need. His main role is to make sure that John's fed and watered and keeps fighting." The mission to save humanity may seem out of character for Constantine, but, as Cerone explains, "What drives him to redeem others is his need to redeem himself."
"There's a fine line that we'll have to toe to keep an audience from hating Constantine," says Ryan, "but I think the key to that is, though there's huge darkness and torment facing him, he has this edgy humor and ironic wit, a defense mechanism for all that crap that goes on in his life. That's why the comic book fans love him, and that's why I think the TV audience will love him too."
Constantine premieres Friday, Oct. 24 at 10/9c on NBC.