Garth Ennis and Steve Dillion’s anarchic religious comic book has had a bumpy journey towards the small screen. Preacher, published in the early 90s, was a heady mix of Americana, faith, and arsefaced teenage tragedy. There have been attempts to bring the project to the big screen with Bond director Sam Mendes, and I Am Number Four’s DJ Caruso trying and failing. It was too violent, too unwieldly, too damn good, that it was impossible to get right. The project cooled until 2014 when the directing and writing duo of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg decided to take a crack at it. Makers of stoner comedy hits like Superbad, This is the End, and the globally controversial The Interview, Rogen and Goldberg were Preacher’s unlikely saviours. Their passion for the material and their box office prowess culminate in the pilot we have before us. After 20 years, the adventures of the reverend Jessie Custer, his true love Tulip O’Hare, and Irish vampire Cassidy have been picked up for a ten episode first series on AMC (it’s on Amazon Prime in the UK), the network that brought you Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Walking Dead. And thank God, or whoever up there is listening, that they did.
For those of you that aren’t familiar with the comics, don’t worry, Preacher’s premier doesn’t borrow too much from the source material. What Rogen, Goldberg, and showrunner Sam Catlin (who wrote this episode) are interested in is the mood and the feel of the world of Jesse Custer.
We begin in outer space-those of us who have seen the shows ad campaign will be immediately confused by this, but it’s a great induction to the cosmic matters that this show will deal in. From the depths of space we see an entity, appearing as if from outside the galaxy, flying from planet to planet, until it reaches earth. Cut to an African village, a priest reciting lines from every writer’s favourite book of the bible, Revelations. In the midst of all this pontificating the priest is hit by this entity. After he dusts himself off he yells for quiet in a voice that isn’t his own. His parishioners obey, and then the priest explodes. The seen is both funny and disturbing, in one supernatural moment we have the show setting out the tone it wants to move forward with.
Then there’s Jesse Custer, played by Dominic Cooper who isn’t as nearly miscast as I thought he’d be. He’s the preacher to the town of Annville, Texas. A town where kids play with their iPads in church, and their idea of a good time is shooting squirrels in trees. Jesse is burned out: rarely do we see him without a drink in his hand, or surrounded by empty bottles. Haunted by the memory of his father, the preacher before him, he drags himself through half-assed sermons, and politely terrifies a child who wants him to beat up his dad. This is our hero, and heroic he ain’t.
Cassidy and Tulip’s introductions, however go from mad to full-on crazy. These two, and the entity, are three forces of nature bounding towards Jessie, and their scenes are the highlights of the episode. Cassidy is all Irish swagger as he entertains a group of businessmen mid-flight on a private jet. Everything’s going well until a trip to the bathroom reveals to Cassidy the type of men he’s dealing with. One graphited bible later and we have a brutal fight in which Cassidy massacres the men, who we find out are religious zealots who think he’s an abomination. They were right, as Cassidy takes each man apart in gloriously gory fashion finishing the fight by impaling the pilot with a broken champagne bottle. In a deliciously silly moment he pops the cork and fills a bottle with the pilot’s blood, puts on his signature sunglasses, then jumps out the plane. As character intros go, this was a memorable one. Yet a few moments later Tulip tops it.
It’s the contrast of Tulip and Cassidy’s action scenes that really shows you who they are as character. Cassidy is a motor-mouthed charmer, whereas Tulip is all business. Her fight scene in a car ploughing through a corn field is highly inventive and kinetic. Tulip is to be feared. What’s also great is that the show doubles down on creative close quarter thematic fighting, which is great since the show that was best at this, Banshee, has now ended.
Tulip, with her talk of the one big score (in which she takes out a helicopter with a homemade bazooka to keep the map for) represents Jessie’s reckless past-something that’s the subject of rumours around Annville, and that Jessie wants to stay away from.
It’s in Jessie wrestling with his true nature that the episode has its one major misstep. His quest to get a battered wife to tell the cops about her husband results in a bizarre revelation that the wife gets a sexual thrill out of it. This in itself isn’t as mad as the show would have us believe-American television has a bad history of using consensual kink as a short-hand for bad people. Yet it gets even more confused when the husband beats up Jessie and threatens his own son for telling the preacher. It’s all just too muddled and not the type of plot that can be explored well in a full episodes runtime, never mind its purely functional basis here. It undermines Jessie’s motivations-does he think the mother is a bad person now? Is it some weird Stockholm syndrome between husband and wife? And is the son misinterpreting consensual activity between his parents? Who knows, the writers certainly haven’t made their minds up, and their attempt to subvert the traditional domestic abuse plot is downright clumsy.
Other than that, the episode does a lot right. It sidesteps a lot of pilot-problems, like info-dumps, and trying to knock the viewer over the head with its themes. And like Breaking Bad (Sam Catlin’s last AMC job), it’s full of gallows humour. Before the entity finally choses Jessie, it tries out other religious leaders killing Tom Cruise in the process, and the man being constantly emasculated by his mother has a bloody pay-off that show that Jessie’s power of the word of God cannot be taken lightly.
8/10 – Preacher shows a lot of promise. With memorable characters, great action and a really sick sense of humour, it looks like AMC, have another hit on their hands.