Long time fans of the original comic book series which serves as the basis for AMC’s new buzz-worthy hour long drama series will approach the live action version of DC Comics/Vertigo’s classic 1995-2000 run with the characteristic optimism and excitement of any lifelong comics fan tempered with a trepidation borne from a critical eye and a defensiveness familiar to anyone who has ever been passionately, obsessively enamored with whatever slice of pop culture or hobby they’ve devoted their love, hard-earned dollars and a significant portion of their time to.
Preacher, which ran for sixty six mesmerising, mind-blowing, patently offensive and gloriously controversial issues as well as nine one-shot specials over the course of six years was the creation of the warped minds of legendary comics writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon. Over the course of its run, Preacher took its three core characters as well as a revolving door of supporting players and antagonists through some of the most graphic, bloodiest and shocking moments ever committed to the printed page.
To call the comic book series politically incorrect is to make the most epic of understatements; Ennis and Dillon left no stone unturned, no organisation, community, physical attribute, or sacred cow unmolested. What could have easily collapsed under the weight of an affectation so blatant in its intention to give the middle finger to anyone and everyone, outrage-be-damned, somehow managed to soar, at first, surprisingly, but over time clearly a result of the skill of a master of new era comic craft.
Make no mistake, that’s exactly what Garth Ennis was, and remains to this day. Paired with Steve Dillon’s simple, clean line-work and a style that could have been dismissed as too rigid for its figure-drawing if it wasn’t so goddamn perfect for the story being told, Preacher was a success artistically above all, but a success elevated to levels rarely seen. In its engrossing story of one man’s shaken faith, the greater purpose thrust on him through the failings of a supernatural hierarchy that is the basis of all faith on Earth, and the broken, troubled souls along for the ride. This writer is undeniably a true Preacher fan and Hollywood risks staining that legacy at its own peril.
So here’s AMC’s Preacher, the latest in a tsunami of comic-based properties cluttering the airwaves with varying degrees of success. Following AMC’s stratospheric commercial success with its last dip in the comic book-adaptation pool, The Walking Dead, it seemed a no-brainer to bring another well-regarded adult comic book run to the small screen. If there is reticence expressed at the start of the run, it is that even with basic cable’s less restrictive policy regarding adult-oriented material it seems unlikely they’ll ever do justice to the scorching source material.
Cable not being beholden to the Federal Communications Commission regulations governing over the air broadcast channels allows for more profane dialogue, frank displays of sexuality and PG-rated nudity, and a penchant for graphic violence and gore which most would say exceeds the TV-MA ratings, not only flirting with but often blowing right through the ceiling for what’s acceptable within the limits of the rating. The relaxed stance concerning violence makes their approach to nudity and sex seem utterly prudish in comparison.
Preacher absolutely glorified in the profane, but not in a way that cheapened the story or made its characters one dimensional cut-outs existing only to act out the worst instincts of the creators; it was profane because it was a hard world in which the main protagonist triumvirate of Jesse Custer, Tulip and Cassidy existed in, brimming to bursting with immoral, sociopathic, psychotic, supremely damaged and apathetic people.
Some were well-intentioned people who let failure define them instead of drive them. Some made mistakes and set out to do whatever was necessary to repair the damage. Some were just monsters, driven exclusively by their own desires, indifferent to the point of soullessness when it came to the right of others to even exist if their deaths could advance the monsters closer to achieving what they desire. The degree of evil displayed by some who wandered the pages of Preacher came dangerously close to cartoonish at times, but never detracted from the core of the tale being told.
And what is that story, exactly? It’s a complex and multi-pronged story, as would be expected from a book spanning seventy five issues over the course of six years, but in order to avoid spoiling the shocks and surprises down the road, if they even can be spoiled to begin with, under consideration is the groundwork laid out in the first episode of the television adaptation.
As with most comic-to-screen adaptations, the show’s creators, actor/writer/comedian Seth Rogen and his long time writing partner Evan Goldberg, along with former breaking bad writer/producer Sam Catlin, have made it clear that the original comic book series is more of a template for what they hope to accomplish with the television series.
Sure, the characters, their motivations and many of the more colorful personalities who cross their paths will be part of the show, but it’s the supernatural elements, involving an as-yet undefined entity seeking a host body for some terrible power only seen in a brief demonstration early on in which the entity’s first host silences the screams and cries of terror following its arrival by simply demanding silence.
Meanwhile, a small town Texas preacher with a disinterested congregation and a scarcely sustainable degree of personal faith with which to justify continuing in the role of minister to people who need a man of stalwart faith to support and inspire them, Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper of Captain America: The First Avenger, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Dracula Untold) walks zombie-like through his life, rarely appearing to do more than simply exist.
There’s an obvious back-story to be fleshed out which will explain Jesse’s apathy, but all we know out of the gate is he’s just trying his best to keep a promise made long ago, a promise which made a rebellious, hell-raising delinquent who left his home town to escape whatever he’s trying to run away from return years later to lead a church and be part of a community that never seems to do anything more than remind him why he left to begin with.
There are flashes of the man Jesse used to be, or may still be, from his chilling reaction to a request from a local teen, to a later confrontation with an abusive husband who thinks he’s still a high school football star everyone should cater to. Jesse is a complicated man, no doubt, and Cooper capably fills the role with the appropriate degree of dispassionate haze and hair-trigger temper, his dark, dazzling good looks picture perfect for the role, and though the premiere has him in a pretty low gear, Cooper shows enough to suggest he’ll easily rise to the occasion when the script calls for it. So much lays before him, situations which will challenge, change and dismantle him from top to toe.
Part of Jesse’s story is his history with a local hell-raising, hard-charging woman named Tulip (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s Ruth Negga, Cooper’s real-life girlfriend, soon to be seen alongside him again in Warcraft). She and Jesse apparently had a thing in the past, though it didn’t sound like a particularly pleasant or loving experience, and when Jesse left, he and Tulip broke in the least amicable manner imaginable.
The lingering distrust and roiling anger have only had the surface scratched so far, but two such passionate and heated individuals will either end up loving or killing one another. Tulip has a real dark side, one on display as she tries to avoid the clutches of a group of henchmen willing to go to any lengths to get to her, and whom she gleefully dispatches during an adrenaline-pumping hot rod race through a corn field, and later at the farm of two unsupervised children who are taken with Tulip’s devil-may-care mania.
In the comics, Tulip is a blonde haired, blue-eyed caucasian, but is now being played by a gorgeous black woman; this change may actually serve to intensify her story down the line as we learn more about her troubled past and her unforgettable relations back home. Tulip and Jesse are like oil and water right now, but Jesse’s destiny may be about to take a serious 180 turn and the road it will lead him down may require a woman of Tulip’s bad ass brand of tough girl and their personal history.
But Tulip isn’t all that’s lurking just outside of Custer’s new world. The story of Preacher is about a trio, and the third character is the most intriguing of them all and is also one of the most clearly illustrated examples that this isn’t just some run-of-the-mill good guys/bad guys/conflicted guys story. Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun of Misfits and Lockout) is an Irish hard ass, speaking with an often unintelligible brogue that makes him as close to comic relief as the show is likely to get.
First seen aboard a jetliner, bartending for a group of high rollers who, like him, are likely more than they seem, Cassidy’s secret is the most fantastical of all, a century-and-a-half year old vampire. He’s hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, immoral and a hoot and a half. His immortality is tested in one particularly gut-churning scene, offering up laughs amid the revulsion. Like Tulip, Cassidy is making his way towards crossing Jesse’s path, though he may not realise why, nor whether it was chance or fate.
Cassidy’s first meeting with Jesse bar hints that despite what would seem to be a world of differences the two men, as well as the lovely Tulip, there might be considerable similarities which will be the basis for a strong bond going forward. The first episode spends considerable time introducing the leads and establishing their own personal struggles both external and internal, but a few moments flash away from them to introduce a mysterious duo (Game of Thrones‘ Tom Brooke and Boardwalk Empire‘s Anatol Yusef) tracking the movements of the alien entity seen pursuing various holy men across the world. These men might be military, or maybe just adventure seekers or paranormal investigators. With very little about them is revealed, whether they will be friends or adversaries is unclear.
Largely set in the crispiest corner of sun-bleached Texas, Preacher shows a dusty, dirty, hot, dry, and bloody world populated with complicated and directionless people in search of their purpose and place in their own lives. Part supernatural mystery, part character study and part black comedy, the show seems to be in good hands. Showrunners Rogen, Goldberg and Catlin are vocal fans of the source material and seem intent on remaining faithful to the tone, while expanding and deepening the story, making their own mark on this classic tale.
Rogen and Goldberg are best known as goofballs whose brand of pot-smoking, frat boy humor is better suited for straight up comedies or absurdist films, but their reverence for the comics, bold personalities and sharp comedic minds might be ideally suited to keeping Preacher on track, balancing the dark, character-driven elements with the rich backstories and rollicking insanity that were hallmarks of the 1995 comic book series.
With the premiere understandably exposition heavy, all of the pieces are being situated on the board, capably setting up a solid foundation for the journey ahead. Even if the opening failed to fully impress, if considering the possibilities in a story of a faithless preacher with a troubled past, a gleefully psychotic ex-girlfriend whose troubles are in the present, a one hundred and fifty year old Irish vampire with three lifetimes worth of his own problems and a supernatural presence doesn’t grab a viewer, maybe they aren’t the type who can handle challenges to the limits of what defines “genre television” or aren’t comfortable without clearly defined limitations on a series’ imagination or vision.
If so, then it’s their loss. Anyone excited by uncompromising full-tilt storytelling that will make an audience laugh, makes them nauseous and make them so damn uncomfortable they won’t know whether to be outraged by the lines that were crossed or applaud the fearlessness that is on display, then revel in the world of preacher. If AMC can do justice to the comic book, and not make viewers wish the show had landed on HBO or Showtime instead, then we’ll all be in for a helluva ride.
Preacher broadcasts on AMC in America and streams on Amazon Prime in many other territories