“What the hell did I just watch?” That was the general consensus amongst the audience when I caught the screening for the Preacher pilot back at WonderCon this spring. Long-time fans like myself were thrown off by the myriad differences from the comics and newbies found themselves thrust into the middle of a story with no explanation or time to catch up. But despite all the chaos and confusion, the audience cheered the house down when the credits rolled.
I had no idea what the hell is going on, but I know I freaking loved it.
The show opens with a mysterious cosmic entity that sounds like an ultrasound heartbeat and a crying infant whooshing through the galaxy toward earth. It crash lands in an African preacher, then proceeds to body jump and explode its hosts as it searches for someone or something. Meanwhile back in Annville, Jesse Custer is the downtrodden preacher in a godforsaken corner of western Texas. He sucks at his job and drowns his sorrows in cheap whiskey.
Tulip, his ex-girlfriend, seeks refuge with her only living family after thieving and murdering her way through the South. She hassles Jesse about joining her on one last job involving some top secret map she just stole, but he ain’t having it. Cassidy barely escapes being skewered by airborne vampire hunters and literally falls from the heavens into a cow pasture. Throughout all this Jesse keeps having visions of the night his father was shot to death in front of him, and it becomes clear that the father’s lessons on forgiveness and vengeance are driving the son’s guilt.
A late night collision with the heavenly being brings a renewed focus toward our hero as well as a newfound power to compel people to obey his Word, even to the point of death. Looming in the background is the troublesome Sheriff Root and his sadsack of a son, Eugene aka Arseface, the odious Odin Quincannon (who doesn’t appear in the premiere but whose cow-killing factory does), and a pair of agents stalking the entity across the globe.
Preacher the TV show can’t compare to the graphic novel from whence it came, but it’s also not trying to. It’s much more “inspired by” than “adapted from,” and that’s a very good thing. There’s no way a direct adaptation could ever work—the original is much too blasphemous, obscene, and violent for basic cable—but veering too far from the source material means losing authorial intent. Fortunately the show keeps the vicious soul of comics creators Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon while appeasing casual viewers and eager advertisers.
And like its inspiration, Preacher the show is a little too scattershot and discombobulating. If you’re looking for a show to take you by the hand and guide you through the dark places, you’re going to be sorely disappointed here. It’s a strong pilot, to be sure, but I can see how a smaller segment of viewers might hate the tale’s new look. Preacher pulls no punches and wastes no time but the disparity between the scenes and B-plots and the constant shifts in tone will make this a steep hill to climb for those looking for some easy Sunday viewing.
The show moves around comic book characters and storylines and creates others whole cloth which may grate hardcore originalists but actually better serves this new version. In the comics, Quincannon and his factory don’t turn up until halfway through the series, Tulip isn’t nearly as badass in the beginning, Cassidy isn’t plagued by vampire hunters, Jesse’s dad wasn’t a reverend, and Annville is a blip rather than a major setting. I don’t see how Masada/the Grail, Angelville, or Salvation can work within this new framework or even if they necessarily need to, but, again, the show works marvelously with or without them. Focusing more on ass-kicking and name-taking rather than religious criticism and Western morality makes the entry point easier for newcomers.
Despite some missteps, there are two things that really sell the show for me: the characters and the show’s ambition. First, the latter. There is literally nothing else like Preacher on television right now and it makes sure you remember that with every smirk and punch. It is like a million things and unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It isn’t the best thing on television or even the best thing ever produced by AMC. But if you let it, it’ll take you on a wild ride you won’t soon forget. The writing is sharp and rapid fire, the directing spot on, and the editing crisp and clean.
Dominic Cooper is an actor who can shift effortlessly between laconic, seductive, and brutal which makes him a fine Jesse Custer. Ruth Negga and Joseph Gilgun absolutely fucking nail Tulip and Cassidy, respectively. That look the little girl had on her face after Tulip blew a helicopter out of the sky with a homemade bazooka? That is how I feel about Negga’s Tulip.
Speaking of super awesome characters, the characters are super awesome! Look, I went from watching and reviewing Fear The Walking Dead—a show so dire I’m rooting for it to kill off its entire cast—to Preacher, so I’m in a bit of a mood right now. Thing is, FTWD and The Walking Dead have conditioned me to expect poor characterization, obvious dialogue, and contrived plots in AMC shows. It’s as if Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Better Call Saul never existed. But sweet zombie Jesus did I love spending time with Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy.
It’s more than just fantastic actors. The writers thoroughly understand their characters, both what the audience sees now and where they’re headed in the future. Instead of forcing them down a path designed to hit certain thematic elements, the writers have set up a situation and let their characters determine the consequences. I’ve sat through 13 episodes of FTWD and 6 seasons of TWD and still have little sense of who any of those people are, but in 63 minutes I feel like I’ve known our trio for years. And I’m not just porting over residual affection from the comics; the characters in the show share plenty of similarities with their literary namesakes but they all have such different motivations, needs, and backstories that they come off as fairly unique creations.
Since seeing the pilot this past March, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on what I saw (and re-read the graphic novels) and let me just say that the premiere is even better the second time around. I am the kind of fan predisposed to love this show, but it doesn’t rest on its laurels. Preacher works hard for its supper, churning out a gory, gutsy premiere.
The pilot shows little of the cowboy justice and Western mythology underpinning the comics, but leaves plenty of room to grow. It has the spirit of the original comics even as it makes a sharp left turn at the letter. As it stands, it’s a bloody good time in a cruel little world. The pilot is a frenetic, whiskey-soaked Southern gothic tale by way of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers. Show creators Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have crafted a kitschy, pulpy, bastard of a show and I cannot wait for the rest of the season.
- “Something is coming.”
- “OPEN YOUR ASS AND HOLES TO JESUS”
- “Is this an ear?”
- “Jesus, what kinda preacher are ye?”
- Ruth Negga is a force of nature here, but the show is sorely lacking in diversity. When a 1990s comic book trumps a 2010s television show in diversity, there’s a problem.
- DeBlanc and Fiore’s increasingly stereotypical outfits is the running gag that keeps on giving.
- Loved the way they framed Arseface’s reveal as a horror film.
- Ratwater are the Saint of Killers get a callout, but not in the way you might expect.
- Christ, I have got to get my hands on that soundtrack.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.