Created by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Sam Catlin
Starring Dominic Cooper, Joseph Gilgun, Ruth Negga, W. Earl Brown, Lucy Griffiths
Long is the way and hard that leads up out comics and onto the screen. People have been trying to get Preacher, the cult classic Vertigo comic by writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon, in cinemas or on the box for well over 15 years. Kevin Smith was going to script for director Rachel Talalay at one point. At another, Daredevil (not the good one) and Ghost Rider director, Mark Steven Johnson, wanted to do it on HBO, allegedly turning each issue into a single episode. We dodged a bullet there, I feel. More recently, American Beauty and Skyfall director Sam Mendes was going to have a shot. It’s difficult to imagine how that would have turned out.
Now, at last, we have a Preacher television series on AMC,with a ten episode season having been aired, courtesy of avowed fans Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, plus their partner, Sam Catlin. It’s been a long time coming, but finally the religious/western/action/comedy/horror is up in lights for all the world to see. So how is it?
I’m gonna go with “hit and miss”, while noting that I think it could get better in the second season. While the Preacher TV series (PTV from here on in) gets a lot of things right in terms of tone, mood, aesthetic and (for the most part) character, there have been some fundamental narrative changes that I think are for the worse, especially taking the long view. Worse, many of them seem to have been made just to pad out the season order. There’s about four episodes of story here, stretched out over ten. That’s never a lot of fun.
I should say at this point that I’m a huge fan of the original comic and my appreciation of PTV is coloured by that. Hell, it’s pretty much my favourite comic series of all time. A lot of my concerns are rooted in my knowledge of how events play out in the books, and a cursory scan of my FB feed tells me that non-readers seem to have a lot more fun with the series than OG fans. I do need to journey into spoiler territory here, but if you want a quick capsule review, it’s this: episodes 1 and 8 -10 are good, everything else is redundant, and hopefully future seasons move with greater purpose. That should hold you.
For everyone else, Preacher (original recipe and hot & spicy) follows the adventures of hard-drinking, hard-fighting reluctant Texas pastor-with-a-past Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), who is sorta-kinda possessed by an entity called Genesis, the offspring of an angel and a demon, which gives him the power to command people as though he spoke the Word of God Almighty. Speaking of God, the man upstairs is AWOL, and Jesse determines to track him down and take him to task for all the evil in the world. He’s aided by his gun-happy girlfriend, Tulip (Ruth Negga) and his new best friend, Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun), a century-old Irish vampire. Arrayed against him are a variety of human and supernatural agencies, chief among them (in season one at least) The Saint of Killers, essentially Clint Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven turned Heaven’s Hitman.
Unfortunately, PTV S1 works as a kind of prequel to the comics story, much to its detriment. Instead of a rip-roaring, profane road movie through the soul of America, we get a supernatural-flavoured small town drama that utilises and remixes a number of elements from the comic, some effectively, some less so. Most notably, a lot of the “Salvation” storyline, which occurs much later in the books, is used, including villainous meat magnate Odin Quincannon (Jackie Earl Haley), who serves as this season’s primary antagonist.
It’s an odd choice because “Salvation” is one of two major flat spots in the original series where the narrative stops moving forward (the other is the NYC-set “Reaver Cleaver” story, and if we jump into that in Season 2, which we very well may, we can pretty much stick a fork in this thing.) Indeed, the only truly meaningful thing that arc added was the return of Jesse’s mother which, given the changes that have been made to his backstory, is probably not on the cards.
Yeah, they changed things. Now, I’m an adult. I understand that what works on the page doesn’t work on the screen, and astute alterations need to be made to successfully translate a work from one medium to another. But there are changes here I just don’t understand, to the point where I suspect the opportunity cost for good drama down the track will outweigh whatever short term benefits were gained. If you’re unfamiliar with the comics this is going to make no sense, but here are the things keeping me up at night:
Changing Jesse’s family history. His father is a preacher now, not an ex-Marine bartender. His mother is absent so far. The whole Angelville thing, one of the most powerful arcs of the series, looks like it’s going to be heavily altered. That’s a huge mistake.
Where the fuck is John Wayne? In the comics, Jesse is visited by the spirit of John Wayne in much the same way Clarence is haunted by Elvis in True Romance. It’s a fun bit of business, and an important vector for the series’ constant interrogation of modern masculinity. They’re kind of doing something similar with Arseface, but it’s all surface – it’s not doing the same thematic work.
Tulip and Cassidy hooking up in the first arc is a misstep. That’s something that happens later in the books and is a big part of us learning that Cass isn’t the happy-go-lucky scamp he presents as. The Cassidy arc is actually a heartbreaker, and a big part of it is that we’re positioned to absolutely love the guy. By having him and Tulip knock boots this early on and keep it a secret, the seeds of betrayal are already sown.
I know that America has a really weird attitude to swearing, but the lack of profanity here is jarring. Ennis writes wonderful, lyrical, hilarious foul language, and its absence is jarring. From a non-American’s perspective, it’s particularly strange when placed alongside the show’s gleefully sadistic attitude to violence (see also fellow AMC comics adaptation, The Walking Dead).
And yeah, the violence. Preacher was an incredibly bloody book, but there’s a casually nihilistic attitude to violence in the TV series that is at odds with the characters as I understand them. In a flashback we see Jesse kill a security guard in a botched robbery – that doesn’t sit right. In the first episode, Jesse’s unwitting use of his powers causes an annoying parishioner to cut out his own heart, a callous sequence that is never properly addressed later in the narrative. Ruth Negga’s Tulip has a particularly cruel streak that’s new to the character. I’m not squeamish, mind you; I’m just confused by the choices here.
Ultimately, though, PTV’s biggest problem is this: it spends 10 episodes futzing around with the table settings, and then it throws away the table. Almost nothing that happens actually matters or will impact the story going forward, which means we’ve spent 10 episodes dealing with a setting and characters who are almost utterly inconsequential. The elements that are most directly lifted from the books – the aforementioned episodes 1, 8, 9 and 10 – are vital; everything else is completely skipable.
Yet there are things to enjoy here. The cast is great, particularly the main trio. The Saint of Killers is fantastic. There are some fantastic action beats, and the overall visual palette is spot on. Having shouldered my way through the first season, I’m willing to give S2 a day in court. But without a firmer hand on the narrative tiller and a better understanding of why Preacher
works as a story, it might be a pretty short day.