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Now that the pilot and the second episode (re-pilot) have done the grunt work in introducing us to the world and characters of Constantine, “The Devil’s Vinyl” is the first “normal” episode of the season. There are no new characters to distract from underwhelming stories, no necessary exposition to wrestle with throughout the hour, just a straight up monster of the week story. However, despite the unburdened nature of the episode, the story doesn’t entirely work.
Last week’s narrative suffered greatly because of all the time and attention that went into introducing Zed, leaving very little room for the supernatural arc to materialize into something truly captivating. While it offered plenty of visual intrigue and some thematic interest, it failed to deliver in the entertainment department, making for a dull and tedious hour. The premise this week, which starts out with a cursed blues record that drives its listeners into committing suicide/violent acts, is a much more silly and over the top plot line with the potential to provide some bonkers fun, but ultimately falls flat.
The whole “cursed/enchanted object” premise has been utilized in film and television a million times. Whether it be a cursed videotape, or a possessed doll, or a haunted board game that terrorizes a group of attractive teenagers, or a happy family, or even a band of misfits; the details change, but the mechanics are always quite similar. Playing with such an identifiable trope isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Because we are so familiar with it, the show doesn’t have to spend much time explaining or setting up the story, we buy into it immediately and understand the story beats implicitly, which allows the writers to inject details and flourishes that are exclusive to the Constantine universe. It leaves more space for potential character development and gives the writers more freedom to flesh out not only the main characters and their relationship but also the guest characters featured just for this particular story. Sadly, for us, the haunted record storyline introduces a really bland and clichéd set of characters and is muddled by the addition of Papa Midnite, a character that had the potential of being very menacing and engaging, but whose presence only complicates the tedious plot and pushes it into convoluted nonsense territory. On top of that, there is next to no character development: Zed remains a vaguely feisty sidekick with questionable intentions, and John’s one-note rogue-ish shtick is quickly wearing thin. At least we got to see more of Chas, who continues to be criminally underused but is always amusingly dick-ish and fun.
It is easy to forgive a show for employing boring stories or having bad plotting if it gets its characters right. If a series has compelling characters that we want to spend time with, then the writers could go almost anywhere with the narrative. But with just three episodes aired, Constantine is just not at that point yet and from what we have seen, isn’t making noticeable steps in making its characters resonate with viewers. This show cannot sustain an average ghost story with a convoluted plot, irritating characters and incredibly low stakes with the characters it has.
There is some fun to be had with the ridiculousness of the story. Some of the deaths are good, cheesy fun (who doesn’t enjoy people exploding like blood-filled water balloons?) the cold open is effectively creepy and weird, and the scene at the morgue is surprisingly funny (in a good way) and exciting. But all the good will the episode builds with these moments is shattered by really annoying and underdeveloped characters. The family being haunted would have been more interesting if they were just seeking fame and fortune instead of the lame sob story that ended up materializing. Making them morally ambiguous and shady makes for a more interesting conflict and would have rid the episode of the overly saccharine quality. Yes, its nice that the family kind of had a happy ending, but I hope this doesn’t become a trend for the show. Because if every mission of the week is going to be so neatly and happily resolved, then what is the point? We need to invest in something and right now the stakes are dangerously low. A major development in the episode is John’s perilous position after meeting Papa Midnite, constrained and wounded he has a limited time to get out of there alive. It should be a tense situation, but we know with absolute certainty that he will be fine, there is no way that he’ll die. What do we gain from having him in this kind of scenario? It doesn’t incite a realization or a shift in perspective, putting him in a potentially deadly situation doesn’t just magically raise the stakes. I will say that it does allow Zed to do something of note and perhaps that’s its entire objective, but for dramatic purposes, it isn’t very satisfying.
Papa Midnite’s reasons for doing this to John are cloudy at best. There seems to be some past history there, but the writers don’t do a great job in conveying that or making us really buy into and care about their contentious relationship. If he wants John out of the way so e can get his record, then why doesn’t he just kill him? He has the opportunity. Why play such silly games? Whatever, halfway through the episode I gave up on following anybody’s motivations and ultimate goals and just enjoy the rest of the episode without questioning much of it. With a show like this one should be able to just shut off, let go of any logic and reasoning and enjoy the nonsense for what it is. But it became an increasingly difficult task to go along with it and be entertained.
“The Devil’s Vinyl” takes on a more involved horror story than its predecessors but is brought down by blah characters and undercooked conflicts. What did you think?