We are who we are, Jesse Custer. – Tulip O’Hare
Pilot episodes are incredibly delicate experiences for writing and directing teams, and the process has only become more complicated since the explosion of high end scripted television. Often, a show has a brief window with which to hook a potential viewer before it loses that person forever. So many other programs are readily available, not to mention the plethora of other entertainment that competes for an individual’s time. Considering family and friends take precedence, the window is small. It’s one of the reasons networks have such a short leash with new properties, because it’s rare that a bad ratings number ever improves from a dismal start. While there are outliers, they’re the outliers.
All of this brings us to Preacher, which premiered on AMC on Sunday. Adding to the difficulties for this show is the familiarity many might have with the source material and more fundamentally, just how weird this thing is to watch. Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s graphic novels have been around for quite some time and those who spend days in comic book shops are at least cognizant of the story, or know someone who read them back in the day. Luckily, they’re heavily associated with the project, though the EP credits go to Seth Rogen and his usual creative partner Evan Goldberg, along with Sam Catlin (Breaking Bad).
With a successful, albeit niche tale already started, realized, and concluded, some walk in with expectations of what should and shouldn’t happen on the television adaptation, and quite frankly, many of those people may find a way to walk away disappointed. You won’t get a page-by-page, panel-by-panel retelling, but you’ll get characters you know, larger stories that you remember, and key events that helped make the Vertigo comic series a sustainable cult hit. However, as we’ve seen with many comic adaptations (including Vertigo’s iZombie), there’s a lot to like about changing things around to give long-time fans something fresh wrapped around the familiar.
Before we go any further, let me make it clear that I’ve read the graphic novels, but my reviews will behave as if I’ve never even picked up a volume of Preacher. There are numerous places you can go that will analyze the show in relation to the comic and even more that will remind you over and over how much they know that you don’t. To me, that’s a “cool story bro” situation, but I see the value, provided the other side also exists. Because those websites, blogs, and articles are plentiful, I’m going to engage you in a dialogue exclusively about the television series. If you tweet to me @GuyNamedJason, perhaps we can talk about the comics, but at Outkick, we’re concerned with AMC’s Preacher.
Listening to Seth Rogen discuss the opening scene in a teaser for Talking Preacher, that very strange first few minutes makes more sense. The one thing I will mention that is immediately different from the comic to the series is the starting point, so even readers might have squinted their eyes a bit. Seth said point blank that he wanted every viewer to know that this is a show where absolutely anything can happen, “right off the bat.” Watching the African preacher get blown backwards by the mysterious force from space, only to wake up, speak and explode in front of his congregation certainly fits that bill.
In fact, the pilot episode was filled with moments that seemed patently ridiculous, absurd, and reminiscent of anything from the gore of Kill Bill to the oddity of The Leftovers. Cassidy (Joe Gilgun) went full vampire on the aircraft, Tulip O’Hare (Ruth Negga) encountered a very independent ten-year-old girl and her little brother, and Jesse (Dominic Cooper) did indeed elicit a “bunny in a bear trap kind of sound” from scumbag Donny (Derek Wilson) in the Annville watering hole.
Jesse Custer is a broken man, searching for something new in what could best be described as a godless world. Under his breath, he remarks that he would pray for Donny’s son if someone were actually listening. He isn’t a true man of faith in the traditional sense. He’s a man looking to escape a troubled, deadly past, and he’s also a pretty horrendous preacher. We see him fumbling over crumpled up notes, losing his place amidst a Tom Landry story. His parishioners are less than interested in anything he has to say, and are already thinking about the post-service spread outside.
Dominic Cooper came out guns blazing as a performer, showing an on the brink of collapse style of personality, but with a measured tone that indicated Jesse did want to be a better man, and perhaps a better Christian as well. While we’re all still somewhat confused about the details of his upbringing or even the person he was before he returned to Annville, we know enough to get the idea. He’s a potentially dangerous, possibly violent, assuredly frightening human being, if pushed at the wrong time.
Jesse’s universe is one filled with wretched excess, blood and guts, strippers (soon enough) and piece-of-shit corrupt officials. He witnesses the problems all around him, beginning with vandalism of the church sign, which will likely be an endless cavalcade of weekly chuckles. He’s not even sure why he’s back in Texas, much less why he’s preaching to disconnected people, and he also doesn’t appear to believe he can be saved or salvaged. Plus, he’s just strange and distant, bordering on creepy. Nothing is as unsettling as a dark, empty church or an off-kilter minister. We got both on Sunday night.
Perhaps the strongest scene in the pilot was Tulip with the children, because we met a second dynamic character with both a good and bad side, and in this case a strong female who knows Jesse better than anyone else on the planet. Ruth Negga was charismatic and O’Hare was someone who quickly became someone I wanted to see again. The homemade bomb arts and crafts projects were ones I must have missed growing up, but seeing army toys embedded in the side of a dead man’s head was one of a million points of style in Preacher’s opening hour.
It’s undeniable that we may well be enjoying the most visually stunning show on all of TV, with the exception of Game of Thrones, though in some ways Preacher is even more stylistic. Even Fargo’s second campaign – which was gorgeous – doesn’t have the array of vibrant colors and the willingness to push the technical envelope that Preacher provided on night one. Even a minute detail has a layer of flavor on top, and the biggest sequences (Tulip’s first on-screen murder in the cornfield is one example) are overflowing with extras. The music choices were what I expected for the show’s start, particularly Johnny Cash, but I anticipated those selections because I knew how effective they would be, and in each case they succeeded big-time.
Virtually no pilot gets everything right, but here there wasn’t anything glaring that stuck out as being irrelevant. What took place in Russia mimicked the happenings in Africa, as did the death of Tom Cruise, who exploded while presiding over a Scientology service.
Yes, I laughed.
Yes. I laughed hard.
The one thing that kept pounding me in the head during the bar fight was how much it reminded me of the bar scene in the Banshee pilot, not because everything was identical, but because of the level of violence, including bones through the skin and the overall badassery of both lead characters. Considering how unsympathetic the victims were in each case, the gnarliness of the scenes played in each show’s favor, as opposed to looking like nothing more than veiled attempts to be shocking. If you’re counting, that’s back-to-back sentences with words that…aren’t actually words. You’re welcome.
Custer is all set to quit and then after asking God for forgiveness for his past, he ends up possessed, but not in bits and pieces in the empty church. His voice leads poor Tim to his inevitable end, which was sad in a way because I liked the annoying guy bothering a preacher about the mundane archetype. We know that’s something that actually happens, or we’d have to be foolish not to think preachers end up irritated listening to nonsense, even though they can’t really react to it. Here, we find out it’s not a wife, but a mother, and then of course Tim goes full self-Temple of Doom and ends his tenure on the show.
Jesse drinks, he smokes, he swears, and that’s before the possession. Now, he seems driven to spread the word of God and help people, but we also recognize there’s a major problem with this guy, and it’s one no one else understands. Jesse doesn’t even understand it. The question is how compelling the first episode was to fans of The Walking Dead who aren’t comic readers and who only have the patience for a small quantity of weird. This show will be filled with the obscure, but those that fall for it early will likely be acolytes in the future.
It was a solid pilot, even if it wasn’t able to fully explain much of where it’s headed, or where it’s been. We’ll see flashbacks to the past pushed into the story in coming weeks and everyone will get a bit more fleshed out. We know a little about Cassidy, even less about Emily, and already know too much about Donny. We also got a great scene with Jesse and Eugene Root (Ian Colletti) that spoke to Custer’s potential as a spiritual leader and met the young man’s father, Sheriff Root (W. Earl Brown), who probably deserves a special place in hell.
Finally, we saw a few scenes with two mysterious figures who will factor big into the proceedings and appear to be hunting, or at least following, the creature…ghost, ghoul, demon, god…or whatever it is.
AMC is replaying the pilot next week as opposed to airing the next episode, instead opting to deliver chapter two the following week. I will be covering the show weekly from start to finish, and it should be a wild ride. The pilot was just the beginning, and with Ennis and Dillon on-hand as consulting producers, what needs to be faithful will satisfy the diehards.
From its first verse, Preacher lacks boundary, lacks apology, and lacks convention, but its cup runneth over with flare, confidence, and narrative imagination. Filled with interesting inhabitants, this world demands to be experienced. It won’t be for everyone, but what makes it unapproachable for some also makes it unique and impossible to miss for others.
Put me in the second camp.
I’m @GuyNamedJason. I don’t hate you. I wouldn’t even know how.