Reasons (Other Than Constantine) To Watch Constantine

Author’s Note: This entry was a challenge from a friend, to write a review of NBC’s Constantine now that it’s truly hit its stride, explaining why the show is worth watching without resorting to a description of why its protagonist is awesome – that’s for another entry, possibly as I start my epic Hellblazer re-read. (No fear, it won’t take up the whole blog, I promise.)

It took some time for NBC’s latest comic-based show to get itself up to full speed, but by episode five, it has certainly done so – sadly, it seems, just in time for the network to decide against ordering an additional nine episodes, halting production at thirteen. In addition to being kind of a stupid move considering the show’s ratings (becoming one of the top shows on all the streaming networks, retaining over 80% of viewers from Grimm, which airs in the previous time slot, and showing ratings improvements of over 30% week-by-week, are all very impressive accomplishments for a show relegated to the 10pm Friday night graveyard slot, premiering opposite the World Series with its second episode airing on Halloween), the show has become truly impressive in its own right, even without considering the adaptation from Hellblazer, in numerous ways.

First, the acting is stupendous for the most part, much higher than usual for network TV. It’s not perfect, that’s certain, but in particular the dynamics between the characters are delightful to observe. There are small moments thrown in by the actors, moments of expression, exchanges of physicality that are some of the best I’ve ever seen in TV or film. The actors have been very clearly growing into their characters, and just as the characters themselves develop closer dynamics and become a team, so too have the actors. A modicum of research into the culture of the cast and crew on-set confirms that this is a show with a great set of people working on it, who have become friends as well as colleagues, and who have come to really love their work. Even rarer, they actually make effort to reach out to the fans to share that, something particularly to be treasured when dealing with any beloved and iconic property. The cast and crew have made deliberate forays into the fandom on Twitter; they sometimes turn up in the comments sections on other social networks. They are clearly listening to what fans have to say, but in the best of ways: the executive producers have confirmed that their goal is not to simply conform to everything the fans want, as that never works out well; they simply take it into account before doing their best to give the fans something we’ve yet to think of.

Which brings me to my second point: the scripting. The dialogue has been showing a significant quality curve upward, especially starting in episode three, “The Devil’s Vinyl.” Of course, acting and writing are inextricably intertwined, but we’ve all seen shows and movies where actors manage to screw up great lines, or manage to somehow deliver poor lines well. This show has neither problem – the excellent cast has been given increasingly phenomenal writing to work with, and the wit positively sparkles. One important result of this is that every episode of Constantine has some serious re-watch value. This is true starting even with the (relatively) weak pilot episode. The pacing is consistently rapid, there are constantly at least two things to follow in the story at any given time, and this show never condescends to its audience – a refreshing change from standard comic book fare.

The creators of this show are giant nerds, and they are fascinated with every aspect of their subject matter. They have made the assumption (quite correctly, as it appears from fan response) that at least a portion of their audience is the same way. This fascination goes far beyond the DC Comics universe, though that of course is its beginning – hence the appearance of dozens of “Easter eggs” hidden in the episodes to date – and extends to carefully researched folklore from around the world, linguistics, religion, culture, metaphysics, philosophy, and more. I have personally spotted over a half-dozen languages and writing systems used correctly in the show, and friends have confirmed more.

More impressive even than the research, though, is the respect accorded these cultures and belief systems. When possible, the producers have consulted actual practitioners of the faiths referenced in the show, and in several cases (most notably the dance ritual in episode five, “Danse Vaudou”) have actually incorporated those practitioners and their work into the relevant scenes as filmed. This is more important for Constantine than for some other shows: there are certain aspects to the story of John Constantine which are seriously problematic – after all, this show features a white male who takes direct advantage of the privilege that affords him, to walk safely into and out of places, and to casually appropriate bits and pieces of others’ cultures, to take on roles for information-gathering that accord him respect and authority, while others must make do with less due to their gender or race. This show acknowledges that at every turn, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, such as Papa Midnite’s furious – and entirely correct – accusation, “You are a magpie of magic, a thief of tradition; you steal from other people’s cultures and beliefs to suit your own purposes.” It is both glorious and rare for a show to call out its own protagonist on his white male privilege.

Even more subtle is the show’s handling of the protagonist’s lack of privilege in certain regards. Serious mental health issues, physiological addiction, and oh, let’s not forget the bisexuality issue. Initially, I was upset when I heard the official line regarding this: it’s not going to be central to the show, and isn’t going to really be clarified one way or the other beyond subtle information. I, like many other viewers, took this to mean that it was going to be removed entirely. I now have to admit I was wrong in this. While I would prefer that the show deal more openly with this issue, they have actually done exactly as they claimed: sexuality is not central to the show or to the characters’ dynamics, and Constantine’s sexuality has remained ambiguous from the pilot episode onward, with a line-drop in episode five confirming his bisexuality in a very subtle way that can be ignored by anyone who wants to ignore it, but definitely points in that direction for anyone watching closely for signs. This is now being handled the same way as Constantine’s smoking: a gradual introduction, testing the waters to see how the viewer base reacts.

That attitude – experimentation, testing the waters of the viewer market – is typical of the way this show is being run. There is an amazing opportunity here for audience members to cast a vote with our wallets in favor of shows that display social consciousness, smart writing, progressive thinking, and complex moral analysis. If you like all of these things, you should be watching this show; if you have friends who like these things, you should be recommending this show.

One of the best protagonists in decades is just a bonus.

#SaveConstantine

Advertisements

Politics Post: Colorblindness in High-Stakes Testing and the School-to-Prison Pipeline

I have read a lot of articles recently about the evils of high-stakes testing, and I agree with almost all of them. There’s just one aspect of the problem I feel has been massively under-addressed: racial justice in standardized testing.
First, a couple of choice quotations to share. These have been working their way around the internet for a couple of years now, and I’d like to put them together in this post.
“If we’re encouraged to differentiate our instruction, why are we suddenly standardizing everything about education?”
“Fairness in education isn’t every student getting the same thing. It’s every student getting what they need.”
A few years ago, my school had a guest speaker come to talk to the teachers about racial equality in our classrooms. We were all ready to be defensive, sure that we were going to be accused of deliberate discrimination, prejudice, racism, you name it. This defensive attitude existed for two reasons. The first is that, as teachers, we were already seeing the pattern of accusatory speakers at educational events, and it was in fact a reasonable conclusion to come to, that anybody coming to talk to us about improving our practices would take that particular tone. The second, though, was that most of the teachers who were present that day are White. And we were reacting out of a knee-jerk fear of being called on our own privilege. (For a great link on White and other kinds of privilege, and why it isn’t something we have to apologize for or be ashamed of, but is something we have to acknowledge and account for, check out John Scalzi’s brilliant remarks.)
Which, as it turned out, was totally unfounded anyway. Both of our fears were. The guest speaker, Ivory Toldson, was brilliant in every way, and one of the first things he did was point out that most of the inequalities in an individual classroom are not based on deliberate discrimination: they’re based on simple lack of knowledge of the background from which our students come, and based on a simple ignorance born of our own backgrounds – backgrounds we don’t have to be ashamed of or sorry for, but whose results we do have to do something about. His recommendation was not that we suddenly start giving out free passes to students of color, or any such thing that some of us expected to hear. He asked us, plainly and with passion, to get to know our students and their cultures, and to understand their individual needs in order to better meet them. Just as we would with students whose needs differed in any other way. I spoke with Dr. Toldson individually later, and he gave me some tips on reaching out to students, which have been incredibly helpful throughout my career since then.
He was the first person I heard say the second of the above quotations, by the way.
Since that day, which was about four years ago, the education field has become more and more about high-stakes testing, in ways that are increasingly destructive, and disproportionately destructive to our students of color.
How are these things related, you ask? Take a look at that first quotation again.
High-stakes testing works on the basic premise that all students are essentially the same, and that it makes sense to “handle” them all in the same ways. In racial terms, this is referred to as “colorblindness.” At first glance, this might seem like a good thing: not seeing race means seeing everyone as equal, right? Except, no, it doesn’t – it fails to acknowledge important differences in background, racial history, institutional discrimination, and numerous other things, including, yes, the existence of White privilege. For more on colorblindness and its deleterious effects, check this excellent article.
Now take that concept, and funnel it into the creation of a test with stakes that determine how we further label our students. Students who do well on these tests are labelled “successful,” and all sorts of opportunities come their way. Students who do poorly on these tests are labeled “failures,” and they find all kinds of new obstacles placed in their paths – as if they needed that, given that these students clearly already face numerous challenges. In particular, it is due to historical and institutional racism that students of color tend to come from lower-income neighborhoods that are already struggling, and have struggling schools.
This fuels another awful concept, one that makes me sad that we even need a term for: the school-to-prison pipeline. The ACLU’s page (here) on this defines this concept as the “disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into juvenile and criminal justice systems.” The ACLU files this concept under their Racial Justice heading for a reason: it disproportionately affects students of color, in particular black and Hispanic students, and this inequality is only getting worse due to high-stakes testing.
What’s the connection here? The fact that the failure to account for diversity in our school systems punishes students of color for their differing backgrounds, and labels them “failures” through the mechanism of high-stakes testing. This label then places them in a position to be shunted straight into the prison system through decreased funding to those students’ schools, which further stigmatizes their backgrounds… and the cycle continues.
This is absolutely unacceptable, and is a failure on the part of education reform. High-stakes testing has been touted as “the great equalizer,” when in fact it has become the reverse.