While it’s great to see costume-heavy comic book shows like The Flash and Daredevil really connecting with viewers, I’m more interested in seeing live-action takes on non-superpowered narratives. AMC, currently home to the most successful hero-free comic show on TV in The Walking Dead, is hoping to achieve a similar triumph with Preacher, the upcoming envelope-pushing drama based on Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s fan favorite series. This was one of my most anticipated small screen efforts of 2016, and while my faith in the religion-fueled mayhem wavered at times, Preacher is an absolute blast that’s unlike anything else on TV.
Dominic Cooper stars as Jesse Custer, a preacher in the small Texas town of Annville that realizes his true destiny has origins that aren’t of this Earth. He becomes the host for a very powerful half-demon/half-angel named Genesis that grants him the power to speak the Word of God, which he aims to use to build his flock. Think of it as Simon Says without Simon’s approval being necessary, because it’s God. The pilot’s opening sequence is a wonderfully absurd look at Genesis’ arrival on Earth and the disastrous effects of its journey before consuming Jesse. And after that, we’re watching his holiness try to understand what’s happening to him while also on a literal search for God. What’s ridiculously unfortunate, though, is Cooper’s Texas accent, which is spottier than a church full of leopards.
Not that Jesse and his drawl draw all of the focus here. Preacher also focuses on the bravado-oozing Tulip O’Hare, played with the perfect amount of sass and cunning by Ruth Negga. She and Jesse share a history that includes romance and other more nefarious things that get teased out sporadically, but they’re not exactly the best of friends at present time. And then there’s Joe Gilgun’s brilliant performance as Cassidy, an Irish lout that finds trouble no matter where he goes, partly because he happens to be a vampire who likes a good fight. Cassidy meets Jesse under less-than-ideal circumstances, and becomes fascinated with him after seeing Genesis’ impact on his new friend.
This story of less-evil vs. evil also includes a small ensemble of other major players. Lucy Griffiths is the faithful and by-the-books single mother Emily Woodrow, who serves as Jesse’s sidekick in all things church-related. The town sheriff, Hugo Root, is a mean old hick bastard played by W. Earl Brown, and his neglected but buoyant son Eugene, better known by the nickname Arseface, is portrayed by Ian Colletti under some extensive make-up effects that convey the boy survived shooting himself in the face with a shotgun. Then there’s Anatol Yusef and Tom Brooke as two angels sent to track down Genesis, and Derek Wilson as the war re-enacting douchebag Donny Schenck, who works for Jackie Earle Haley’s even bigger douchebag Odin Quinncannon, the powerful and eccentric owner of the town’s long-standing slaughterhouse.
Preacher was created for TV by the comedy-leaning duo of Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, along with Breaking Bad writer/producer Sam Catlin, and you definitely get a feel for their backgrounds here. There are laughs to be had, especially when Cassidy is front and center, and the subject matter often brooded with far more seriousness than I was expecting at times. Goldberg and Rogen’s penchant for taking things to extremes is evident on a regular basis, while the setting’s dusty isolation and motley crew of citizens recall the outskirts of Walter White’s Albuquerque.
Preacher has a lot of great things going for it, particularly when it comes to the visuals and the audio. With lots of wide shots of sunny horizons metaphorically darkened by the subject matter, the episodes often look like little movies, and the fabulous use of title cards both big and small help to carry the comic aesthetic over. As well, few series sound this good, with each scene heightened by mood-driven music and effectively detailed sound effects. Fans hoping that live-action Preacher is as gleefully violent as Ennis and Dillon conceived it, your pleasure is guaranteed, as there are some fantastically gruesome moments just around every corner. (One fight inside the church is a definite highlight.) Ignoring the particulars of Cooper’s vocal patterns, the performances are all really top notch here, too, and nothing could make me happier than realizing a running gag was made out of people messing with the lettering on the church’s sign.
All that said, Preacher is not perfect, and its problems seem like ones that should have been figured out in the lengthy page-to-screen gestation period. The story beats that kick things off are way different from the comics, and while that isn’t a fault in and of itself, the immediate chemistry between Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy isn’t there as it arguably should have been. As well, I can’t honestly say the early episodes screened for review did much to make Jesse and his task feel very important to me, as the limited exposition and use of childhood flashbacks gave me more of a sense of what he’s done rather than who he is. And beyond the angels seeking Genesis, there’s only a muddled sense of what any other character’s purpose is, and even the angels aren’t disclosing everything.
There are other nitpicks, surely, but another thing I could laud Preacher for is that its spontaneous narrative could very well fix every single issue I have in the next episode I watch, with the remainder of Season 1 delivering TV perfection in every way. The storytelling restraint might even be admirable, as it implies a full-season viewing would balm my current in-the-dark woes. This isn’t in any way a cookie-cutter network series where a child could write an episode after watching the pilot. Preacher is gutsy (in all senses of the word, thanks to Cassidy), smart and has limitless potential in telling a modified version of the epic tale first ushered into our consciousness by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. To have a TV series that can be extremely badass while still offering up the promise of getting better in the future, well that’s something network execs pray for. Let’s just hope Preacher can keep those churches and living rooms filled to see it through to the end.
Preacher will premiere the first of Season 1’s 10 episodes on AMC on Sunday, May 22.