Preacher looks and acts like a prestige drama. The pilot episode took its time establishing the characters and setting up their world, there were meaningful conversations about faith, more than a few hints about the titular hero’s tragic backstory, loads of questions with hardly any answers, and some not-so-subtle social commentary. A passing glance at those elements suggests that it’ll be another grim, ultra-serious program that causes people to leap onto social media the second an episode ends to (1) mourn the loss of a beloved character, (2) complain that it’s different from the source material, or (3) whine about some ‘problematic’ element. What sets Preacher apart from some of its Sunday night counterparts with fervent and fickle fans is the tone. Yes, the first episode was dark, yes, it moved at a measured pace, and yes, it was a tad confusing—especially if you haven’t read the comic—but it was also completely fucking bonkers. In one hour, we watched a mysterious entity from the cosmos blow up three men of faith (including Tom Cruise), an insane vampire turn a man into makeshift blood bottle, that same vampire jump 3000 feet from a plane only to splatter his body into mush and eat an unsuspecting cow to restore himself, a woman enlist the help of two excitable children and their toys to build a homemade bazooka, and a man cut out his own heart as an offering to his mother. Oh, and there’s a character named Arseface. Preacher may look like it wants to get dressed up for the opera, but it’s far more interested in going to the Grand Guignol theater down the road. And that is a very good thing.
Let’s dispense with a troublesome notion before we dig deeper into the show, namely that adaptations of popular source material have to be slavishly faithful in order to be successful. This is a silly idea for a multitude of reasons. The most obvious one is that the page and the screen are vastly different mediums. What works in one will not always work in the other. Take Watchmen for example. Say what you want about that movie but I think we can all agree that the choice not to include the bizarre, alien hybrid creature was a wise one. Film and TV have budgetary and time constraints that comics and novels do not. Certain elements will always need to be excised or tweaked. More importantly, why in God’s (or Jesse Custer’s) holy name would you want to watch something where you know every plot point beat for beat? Where’s the fun in that? What are you a big fan of Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake? This is something that I’ve admittedly struggled with myself so I’m not unsympathetic to people screaming, “BUT IN THE BOOK THIS HAPPENS!” Here’s the thing though: you will always have the source material. If you don’t like what is being done in the show or film version of your favorite story, you can always go back and re-read. Making changes does not ‘ruin’ the original story, nor does it have any effect on your childhood memories. If a bad choice is made, fine, complain all you want about that. But to complain simply because a choice is different is very silly. “IT’S ALWAYS BEEN THIS WAY” is the argument of a five-year old.
That being said, I’m a huge fan of the Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon comic series and I bristled a bit when it became clear just how many changes Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Sam Catlin were making in order to finally get this thing on the screen. After seeing the pilot though, I’m fine with all of them. The irreverent spirit of the comic is very much intact and several sequences (particularly Cassidy’s intro on the plane) feel as if they could have easily been written by Ennis. And there are nods to the comic all over the place, from the beer Jesse drinks to the wailing comet. It’s clear that Rogen and Goldberg are big fans, which should come as a reassurance to those who are wary of the series. It’s even more reassuring that Breaking Bad alum and official showrunner, Sam Catlin, is not a big fan. Catlin worked on one of the best TV shows of the last ten years so he probably has a very concrete idea of what will and will not work on screen. I also imagine he reined in Rogen and Goldberg a little. Based on their previous work, the comedy writers probably wanted to be as profane as possible with Preacher and I’d bet money Catlin helped them find the right balance. They’re a good team.
Anyway, enough about the comics, let’s talk about the show itself. If the pilot episode had one big issue, it’s that it was a bit muddled. I could easily see someone with no knowledge of the comics watching it and saying, “What the fuck is this?” After all, any show that begins with a comet possessing an African preacher and then exploding him from the inside out is going to make people scratch their heads a bit. There are also so many different elements in play and they only start to come together at the episode’s conclusion. Individual scenes and character intros were more engaging by themselves then as part of a larger whole. The fight on the plane was an absolutely wicked blast but it also raises several questions about Cassidy and the men after him that aren’t even brought up after that. Ditto Tulip’s intro. The fight choreography in the car was stellar and her demented bonding with two star stuck children while building a bazooka was fun (also, hearing the helicopter blow up only through the little girl’s ears was a clever way of utilizing the show’s limited budget) but largely disconnected from the story of this troubled small town preacher. It’ll be interesting to see if Catlin and crew will be able to bring all these elements together. Based on the strengths of the episode though, my faith is pretty high.
Said strengths include all three lead actors. Joseph Gilgun is already having the time of his life as Cassidy. Any comic fan should be over the moon with his performance. He’s funny, vicious, and mysterious, frequently at the same time. The pilot’s best moment was the conversation in the jail cell between him and Jesse. It set up their friendship effectively while touching on the larger philosophical debate between them that will most likely be a central theme of the show. Ruth Negga’s Tulip had some of the best moments of the pilot as well. There’s the aforementioned bazooka scene and a quieter scene with Jesse that hinted at their troubled past and established great chemistry between the two actors. It’s going to be fun to see their relationship develop further. The supporting cast is solid as well. I’m particularly intrigued by W. Earl Brown’s Sherriff Root, a vile beast of a man in the comics portrayed here with a touch more sympathy. Ian Coletti is tasked with the somewhat thankless role of Arseface and managed to illicit our sympathy and affection even with that massive prosthetic on his face. The gloomy walk Jesse took upstairs to his bedroom door—as if he were on his way to visit Satan himself—was a delightful way of upending our expectations, particularly for viewers who had no idea what was behind it.
Dominic Cooper had the hardest job out of any other actor in the episode. Cassidy and Tulip are instantly likeable but that’s not the case with Jesse Custer. He spends much of the hour moping about and being terrible at his job, only coming to life in the last fifteen minutes or so. So it’s a testament to Cooper that he was able to hold our interest the whole time. His haunted, world weary outlook on life painted a portrait of a man who’s seen more than his fair share of horrors and is trying to atone for them. And then, there was the bar fight with Cassidy, a sequence that overused word ‘badass’ was invented to describe. Cooper was at full command in this scene and watching him break that creep’s arm made me wince even as I cheered, which is a dichotomy the show should consistently strive for.
Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead frequently make us cringe but it’s rare that they make us pump our fist with joy (though it does happen). There’s also not much in the way of humor on either show, beyond Tyrion making quips. This is why the Preacher pilot is refreshing. Here’s a violent, dark show with a complex mythology and built in fan base that is clearly going for an irreverent sense of fun more than a mounting sense of doom. We need a show like that, one that will shock and delight in equal measure. It’s the time of the Preacher everyone. Get on board.
*I’ll be recapping each episode on Mondays as the season progresses. I’ll stop if the show turns to shit. Don’t think that’s gonna happen though. I think we’re in for quite a ride.