Preacher, one of the most celebrated comic book series of the late 20th/early 21st century, is hard to adapt. For years, there have been feeble attempts to capture the 66 issue series (not including one shots or a Saint of All Killers mini-seires) by acclaimed author Garth Ennis, from the likes of a film produced by Kevin Smith for Miramax and an HBO series by Mark Steven Johnson. All of those labored in development hell, mainly due to the massively intimidating task of turning a book as complex and controversial as Preacher into any format other than comics. Admittedly, I’m only roughly half way through the comic series as of this writing (don’t worry, I’ll be catching up), but I can see why this amazing series both attracted potential adaptation and intimidated anyone from seeing it to fruition. Preacher hits controversial subjects of sex, racism and religion without caring at all about who it offends and how lost some may be on its dense continuity. The religion aspect in particular would likely have major studios pass on the concept, given its damning declarations against Catholicism, The Second Coming and even God himself. If any network were to try it, HBO would have probably been the best bet, but even that fell apart when Mark Steven Johnson tried to make every episode a panel-for-panel adaptation. Who could take on such material and bring it to the screen?
Well, AMC had it in mind and it makes sense that they would. After all the success they’ve had with The Walking Dead, why not adapt another beloved comic book like Preacher into a full fledged series? They even got major talent behind the scenes, with comedic powerhouses Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg developing the show & directing the pilot and Breaking Bad writer/producer Sam Catlin serving as show runner. In theory, Rogen & Goldberg could handle the abrasive comedy while Catlin keeps the character drama in check. But could they balance all of that? … Kind of? The pilot for Preacher changes up many things and I’m not necessarily against that in theory. After all, there are aspects of the comic that show its twenty years of age and adaptation is a natural place for updating, as long as the spirit of the property is kept intact.
To its credit, there are points when this first episode hits the nail on the head while changing things up from its comic book source material. Mainly the characterization of Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun), the hard drinking Irish vampire with crude sensibilities and Tulip (Ruth Negga), a badass hit-woman who wants to get her guy Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) out of the preaching game and into the his own hitman past. The former two feel far more realized as character, with Cassidy fully encompassing his crude carefree attitude. His introduction in the airplane is new, but feels appropriate for his character and the tone of the original Preacher comic. Tulip meanwhile is a solid update on the original character, who at times in the comic was a tad over sexualized and flighty in a way common to Garth Ennis’ the late 1990s slight unawareness of changing gender roles. Here, Tulip is confident, sexy and flawed in a more three dimensional way, as shown in her well choreographed introduction that shows her as a action movie heroine, caregiver and conflicted anti-hero all in one without it feeling too rushed or forced. Plus, she’s more of an alpha in her relationship with Jesse instead of waiting around for him to come back into her life which is a refreshing change.
The biggest problem of the pilot has more to do with Jesse. While going through his own crisis of faith, Jesse does a lot of deep contemplation familiar to AMC heroes like Walter White or Rick Grimes. He’s mopey, melancholy and without much of the subtle Texan charm of his comic book counterpart. Dominic Cooper plays Jesse so solemnly, removing the remorseless yet roguish energy of the character with an airless doldrum more common to the lesser protagonists of long forgotten AMC rip offs of Breaking Bad. There are moments where they come close to his character like the big bar fight, but even that is tempered by poor framing of carnage and lesser jokes. We don’t even get to his cool God powers until the last ten or so minutes of this hour long pilot. It’s especially troubling since his story encompasses most of the plot, revolving around him dealing with a town that’s gone to hell and losing sight of God. Some of those basic ideas are familiar to the comics, but Jesse’s sudden decision to stay and try to help this community feels wildly out of character for the man out to destroy the town that killed his family, as seen in some clumsy flashbacks.
Instead, Jesse mulls over rather uninteresting cases of abused housewives, a wormy mama’s boy and a racist sheriff with a deformed son. While the other two are exclusive to the show, Sheriff Root (W. Earl Brown) and his son Eugene “Arseface” Root (Ian Colletti) are key to the early parts of Preacher, demented drawings of south pride and hero worship gone to shit. Here, they’re much more low key players, with The Sheriff constantly looking away from bigotry in favor of keeping the status quo, but in a much more soft edged fashion than the original comic. Arseface is a sweet enough kid like his original character, but he’s only there to serve Jesse’s crisis of faith and hint at what I hope will continue one of the major arcs of the comic: the literal search for God. But that gets a bit more complicated and I can see why the show decided to lay off on that until further episodes. They at least do a solid job of capturing the look of Eugene’s anus like deformity, though it’s clearly lacking in the more disturbing crevices.
Still, the treatment of Arseface is pretty indicative of a rather worrisome aspect of the show as of yet: it isn’t that funny. The comic Preacher had shades of a show like South Park, with direct unapologetic satire that was crude with purpose. There are occasional moments when the show slides into this, namely a news report of Tom Cruise bursting into blood after being possessed by the spectral Genesis as it searches for a religious host. Yet, it’s a small background gag that’s tossed away, where as the comic form would flesh this out into a more elaborate scene that would be both hysterical and contemplative.The show decides to go smaller and occasional spurts of humor from most of the characters other than Cassidy. Part of this feels indicative of the limited budget the show must have had, given the big helicopter crash that’s off screen or the apparent decision to stay in Annvile, Texas at the end of the episode rather than go on the road trip adventure that’s sort of the point of the comic. They don’t skimp on everything, as most of the violence and Genesis elements are done with the usual panache of AMC’s bigger shows like The Walking Dead. But that lack of consistent humor and boundless energy really drags things to a crawl and makes me worried that AMC won’t allow Preacher the type of room for morbid black humor that made the comic so memorable, particularly after the risk-free adventures of their cash cow The Walking Dead.
This pilot isn’t a complete wash. There are a few moments that reminded me of the abrasive fun of the comic. The final darkly comedic moment felt like something right off Ennis’ pages, a disturbed punchline to an elaborate build up that would be featured in many an issue of Preacher. But the overall tone is far more confused and clearly indicative of the source material being warped into the AMC brand with elements like Jesse’s Walter White-isms and the mysterious men searching for Genesis that seem to be replacing The Saint of All Killers with the silent Cousins of Breaking Bad. Even outside of the comic adaptation, it feels like a harder edged show about faith and society stifled by a need to copy more of a formula. I’m not giving up hope, but it’s a rough pilot that hopefully gains some authentic grit rather than furthering the baby proofing of Preacher for mainstream audiences.
Preacher: (2.5 / 5)