What a relief. “The Devil’s Vinyl” is a merciful step up from “The Darkness Beneath.” Not such an improvement that someone might have sold his soul to the Devil or anything, but enough for Constantine to prove it can produce an entertaining weekly mystery. That mystery involves a lot of spooky tropes: nocturnal settings, buzzing fluorescents, gnarly baroque furniture. The episode briefly explains all the weird shit that needs explaining, it supplements all that stuff with even more freaky relics, and it inches along the relationships among the recurring characters of this world. Basically, “The Devil’s Vinyl” is what Constantine should look like going forward.

The biggest problem is that Constantine is so full of plot. All that straight story comes at the expense of life, mood, perspective. “The Devil’s Vinyl” takes us to the ‘30s to see when Dude Number One made a deal with Satan in exchange for musical prowess, resulting in the unholy acetate recording that starts with the blues and then bleeds into the voice of the Devil and the screams of his victim. In the present day, Dude Number Two, the record’s producer, is on his deathbed. He told Jasmine Fell, an actual character who’s involved in the music biz, where he hid the record. She’s trying to exchange the record for her soul, because of Backstory Number Two: She once sold her soul to a soul broker (one doesn’t sell directly to the Devil; it’s just not done) named Anton in exchange for her husband’s life as he underwent cancer treatment. It worked, but she doesn’t have much time left, and now Anton has a new deal for her. Except really it’s a plot by Papa Midnite, a voodoo priest who knows how to make an entrance (i.e. he sits right the fuck where he is and makes you come to him). He’s after the awesome power of the acetate, at least as a bargaining chip with Satan. Unfortunately the henchmen charged with actually recovering the damned thing have different ideas. There’s a club massacre that happens off-screen, and for some reason the guys then take the acetate to a college radio station. It’s unclear what they hope to achieve, but don’t worry, Papa Midnite saves Constantine, and then Constantine condemns the henchmen and the record to hell. As in the sound booth turns into an actual fiery pit. And that only settles the record. There’s still the matter of Jasmine’s soul. So Constantine and Chas capture Anton and make him eat the contract (“Where do you think the saying comes from?”), restoring Jasmine’s soul and her husband’s cancer. I suspect this episode is still unfurling its story on some local station. All of television could fit within “The Devil’s Vinyl.”

One virtue of all that plot is a feeling of complexity. Instead of two opposing sides, there really are all kinds of different agendas at work in the world of Constantine. Zed’s eventual treachery doesn’t bear much weight—get on with it already—but Papa Midnite actually makes a formidable nemesis. The other advantage is the Ryan Murphy special. Throw enough at the wall and something’s gotta stick. Not everything makes sense, like why the fuck Jasmine keeps a haunted record that freezes everything it touches, including part of her record shelf, right where it is even after her curious daughter sees it there. (Oh, yeah, there’s even more plot: The daughter listens to the record, and gets temporarily possessed or something. This is why we need to show our children horror movies at a young age.) But before you can question it, we’re off to the next stop.

That plottiness problem might just be category error. Maybe Constantine is content to be a detective procedural, untangling big old knots of yarn and leaving it at that, but I’m not the one who made a show about demonology and packed it to the gills with mystical artifacts. All that story doesn’t have to suffocate the episode. In fact, the writers know enough to leave some stuff off-screen for that very reason. But still Constantine could work a little harder to bring these little worlds to life each week.

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For starters, this is an episode about a recording of the Devil’s voice. Is anyone even a little spooked by that blues recording? The first time we hear it, it sounds like Randy Newman. Say what you will about The Lords Of Salem, but the Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs” is an effectively eerie choice for the sounds of Satan. In fact, the blues could be, too, if the episode had taken the care to draw out some suspense, or play with the big empty recording studio. What’s more, we’re in Chicago this week, but we don’t get much of a sense of either the city or the music scene. It’s all so generic, except for the moment when John pipes the Sex Pistols into his ears, which strikes me as exactly the kind of music he wants to identify with. This is supposed to be a show about John and Zed traveling the country and dropping into local horror stories. What a waste not to animate each location with specific details.

Even the story is a little “just the facts, ma’am.” It could feel like John and Zed walking into a film noir and struggling to get a grip on Jasmine before she swirls down the drain, but this is more like John and Zed taking over a crime scene from the locals and solving it for them. Cut and dried. Think about Jasmine’s story. There’s no palpable feeling at all about what she did, whether compassion or judgment. With a little less plot and a little more room to breathe, there might be more time to establish a tone and mood, cultivate local flavor, or enact some meaningful drama among the regulars. Even just a good, old-fashioned suspense scene that doesn’t affect the plot but instead brings out an atmosphere of dread could work wonders. That might even trick us into thinking John could potentially lose at some point.

And speaking of the Chicago music scene, why is this the episode where Papa Midnite shows up? Almost nothing would have to change to make “The Devil’s Vinyl” about New Orleans jazz. And the bigger problem: Why is Papa Midnite so incidental to his own introduction episode? Oh, he gets a few good scenes. The scene where we first see him is a testament to Constantine’s strengths. First we hear him through a crack in the door, but all we see is a sliver of a TV screen, and we only hold long enough to see one black-and-white woman’s face cut to another that’s slightly off. It’s just a little disquieting. Then when John enters Papa Midnite’s lair, we track alongside, parallel to the ornate grated wall dispersing the back-lighting in beams. First we glide out ahead to get a look at this guy in his fancy chair watching an old televangelist program in his dark room, then go back to get John, and finally head once more into the belly of the beast, all in one tick-tock-tick panning sequence. What a simple but expressive way to keep us wary. It may not be saying much, but Michael James Shaw is such a blast that Papa Midnite is already the richest character on Constantine who isn’t a smirking, oft shirtless Englishman.

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Midnite doesn’t get to do much magic, although he does drop a tantalizing detail about an Old West mystic who sold him a Winchester that never misses, and at the end he burns up a voodoo doll of his crush, John Constantine. Coolness, whether magical or not, greases the wheels on a show like this. Zed’s rescue of John from the homeless man has nothing on Midnite bursting into the finale and shooting the speakers with a rifle. “The Devil’s Vinyl” keeps piling on the magic stuff—the ID card, pixie dust, nails from the coffin of St. Anthony of Padua, the dying being able to see angels—but the best is John’s hand of glory. The story behind it is a little funny (you have to pickle a hanged man’s left arm for seven years before saying the right incantation), but then John lights it to briefly resurrect his buddy. (Still more plot: Jasmine brought the record to a guy that John knows because he used to front a punk band called Mucous Membrane.) It works, but they’re in the middle of a morgue. The camera whip-pans out into the hall as a bunch of body bags start bouncing around. It’s weird and funny, exactly the kind of messy magic Constantine should excel at.

For all its episodic plotting, “The Devil’s Vinyl” does a surprising amount of serial work, too. It negotiates the relationships between John and Midnite and between John and Manny. We get a real sense of what magic means in this world. It’s not just that John is damned to Hell. Magic has a cost. Yet John fights the darkness anyway. Meanwhile Chas starts investigating Zed, discovering she isn’t law enforcement. Zed’s visions are way more fun to watch than Liv’s blood droplets. This week we get a field of falling jasmine that looks like Pushing Daisies and a white tiger in an ambulance that looks like Wonderfalls. (This on top of the Hannibal-esque opening credits.) And we get a strong sense of what this show will look like going forward. Instead of Liv scrying to figure out where each week will take them, Zed does her thing with a newspaper and the map. From there John and Zed are off to save the day, with Chas on standby and Manny popping in to say he cares. “The Devil’s Vinyl” may not be great, but it’s a firm foundation for Constantine to become great.

Stray observations:

  • “The Devil’s Vinyl” is written by Battlestar Galactica vet Mark Verheiden and David S. Goyer and directed by Romeo Tirone. Another fantastic spooky shot is the high-angle of the Fell living room just before the little girl plays the record. The big baroque furniture swallows everyone up, the oblique composition is unsettling, the black shadow bars and the pops of red tell us exactly what’s going on right now. A show like this could do a lot with simple light and color.
  • Every time I paused writing this review, I started humming “Too Many Cooks.” Now that’s the devil’s music. I mean that as the highest praise.
  • The cold open makes the most of flickering lights, but when the guy stabs a screwdriver into his head, you know Constantine isn’t messing around.
  • The cold opens—where some guest actors discover the grave consequences of messing with the Devil’s stuff—are another reason Constantine feels light on setting. They establish each episode as being the story of the people in some town. John and Zed are the ones who enter their story, not vice versa, so the show would do well to lean a little more on what their world is like.
  • Manny says, “There is only one true way to deal with [the Devil’s voice on the acetate]. Do you have the courage?” Meaning what? Doesn’t seem that difficult for John to banish the record back to Hell.
  • Zed keeps running the show this week. Eventually John tells Chas, “We don’t have to just jump when she says it. Okay, that’s long enough. Let’s go.”

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