The AMC network has hyped its new comic book adaptation ‘Preacher’ so aggressively over the past few months that I couldn’t help approaching it with skepticism. Something about the promos and commercials gave off an uncomfortable ‘Into the Badlands‘ vibe, but I was intrigued enough by the property’s origins to give it a shot. After watching the pilot episode, I honestly have no idea what to make of the show.
Based on a cult comic written by Garth Ennis that was published by DC’s Vertigo imprint, the rights to the title made the rounds through Hollywood for a number of years, bouncing among various possible film or TV adaptations that all fell through for one reason or another. A common reason cited was that the material was too extreme, too profane, and too balls-out insane to do proper justice in a mainstream Hollywood project. Basically, ‘Preacher’ was considered unadaptable.
That didn’t stop people from trying to adapt it, of course. In a bizarre turn of events, that duty eventually fell to Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. The ‘Superbad’ best buds developed it as a TV series for AMC, share story credit and co-directed the pilot episode. How much each did, I can’t say. Because I haven’t read the comic, I also couldn’t tell you how faithful the TV version is. All I know for sure is that the show is completely nuts. I haven’t decided whether that’s a good thing or bad yet.
We open with a truly perplexing prologue that looks like an old grade school film strip, complete with scratches all over the picture. It shows animated images of our solar system, through which something that looks like a comet zips through, dodging and weaving around planets, smashing through the rings of Saturn, and finally making a beeline for Earth.
Cut to: A shantytown in Africa. At a makeshift church, a priest preaches about the Book of Revelations to a small flock when an invisible force suddenly crashes through the doors and knocks him backwards. He stands up, a new look of revelation on his face, and declares himself a prophet. Then he explodes in a giant gusher of blood and gore all over the screaming parishioners in attendance.
OK, that’s hilarious. You have my attention.
The story then moves to its primary location, the nowhere town of Annville, Texas. Our lead character is Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper from ‘Agent Carter’). He’s a preacher at a ramshackle church and is very bad at his job. He smokes, drinks and curses. He’s terrible at delivering sermons. I’m pretty sure one is just him recapping an episode of ‘Friday Night Lights’. Although the people in his town still attend church on Sundays (because they live in Texas where they’re required by law to do so), nobody pays attention to Jesse – except a loser named Ted (familiar character actor Brian Huskey), who constantly pesters him for advice on how to deal with his nagging mother.
Jesse should not be a preacher. He knows it and everybody else knows it. He doesn’t even seem to have any faith in God. The only reason he goes through with this charade has something to do with a dark history in his past that’s vaguely hinted-at but not yet explained.
But this isn’t some deep character drama about a man’s existential struggle with his faith. It’s a comic book action show. Jesse’s story is frequently interrupted by cutaways to other parts of the globe, where more religious leaders have exploded all over their congregations similar to the episode’s opening. (A TV news broadcast even reports that Tom Cruise blew up at a Scientology center!) At most of these events, a pair of mysterious men show up afterwards to survey the scene. I’d call them Men in Black except that they don’t usually wear black suits.
We also spend time meeting a trio of outlandish supporting characters.
Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun from ‘Misfits’) is a foul-mouthed Irish bloke first introduced working as a bartender on a private jet, which quickly turns into a loony action set-piece where he brutally kills everyone on the plane (using a variety of weapons – including knives, axes and crossbows – which all just happen to be on board?). He kills the pilot by biting the man’s throat and drinking his blood, then blithely leaps out the door carrying only an umbrella. His motivations for doing any of this are unclear.
Cassidy is next seen in a crater in a field, the bottom half of his body basically splattered in a bloody mess. A cow wanders by and he somehow yanks it down into the pit with him and kills it. Later, he shows up in a bar in Annville, fully intact again, where he meets Jesse. Not only is he apparently immortal, he has the power to set his hands on fire.
As if that’s not crazy enough, along comes Tulip (Ruth Negga from ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’), a badass broad with a connection to Jesse’s past. In a silly flashback, she fights with a man trying to kill her as their car speeds through a cornfield. After taking care of that guy, she pulls up to a farm and enlists the help of two kids at home alone to make a homemade bazooka, which she then uses to take down a helicopter. She’s a free spirit and has a blast doing all of this.
Finally is a teenage kid named Eugene, whose face… well, it looks like he has an anus for a mouth. (In the comic, he’s known as “Arseface.”) All of his dialogue is subtitled because it’s mostly unintelligible. Whether he was born with this deformity or it was the result of an accident is not addressed. He seems to be a good kid and is one of the few people in town on good terms with Jesse, but I assume we’ll learn more about him later.
As he’s feeling particularly down on his luck, Jesse is confronted at the bar by an abusive lout named Donnie, who’s just come back from a Civil War reenactment and is still wearing his Confederate uniform. Donnie is pissed at Jesse for talking to his wife and trying to get her to report him to the police. (It turns out that she’s a masochist and likes being beaten.) He threatens Jesse, and also threatens to beat his own son for tattling to Jesse. The threat to a child is apparently Jesse’s trigger. He stands up and warns Donnie that he’s about to beat the ever-living shit out of him – which he then proceeds to do in a big bar fight where Jesse single-handedly takes on Donnie and several of his dipshit friends. He clearly has experience fighting, and even cracks a smile for the first time in the episode as he breaks bones and kicks ass.
Jesse and Cassidy (who was in the bathroom for most of the fight and didn’t even do anything) spend the night in jail for that. Afterwards, Jesse resolves that it’s time to give up being a preacher. He plans to announce that his next sermon will be his last. However, when he goes to the church that night, he sees the lights blinking and hears mysterious banging noises. He doesn’t find anything when he goes inside, and decides to say one last prayer to God. When he begs the Lord to answer him, the church doors creak open and a scary invisible force slowly moves down the aisle toward him, then slams into Jesse and knocks him down.
While he’s unconscious, Jesse has a flashback to witnessing his father being shot in the head.
Rather than explode, Jesse wakes up and is told that he was out for three days. Nonetheless, the church has assembled and is waiting for him to deliver his sermon. On the way in, he’s once again pestered by Ted, and gives the man the same advice he always has – that he should be honest with his mother and open his heart to her. For the first time, Ted has an immediate reaction. He thanks Jesse, turns around and walks away, as if Jesse had somehow influenced his mind.
Jesse starts his sermon planning to quit, but as he speaks he decides that he can’t. Instead, he resolves to be a better preacher. He says that he realized that it’s his purpose to save everyone in town.
Without hesitation, Ted buys a plane ticket and flies to Florida to visit his mother in a nursing home. She’s puzzled to see him. In a very literal fashion, he follows Jesse’s advice. He tells his mother the truth about how he feels, and then pulls out a dagger (I’d ask how he got that on the plane, but deadly weapons are easy enough to acquire in Florida), stabs himself in the chest, and rips his own heart out to present to her. Of course, he drops dead.
The episode ends with the two Men in Not-Black arriving in Annville. One of them eats a teabag as if it were a snack.
Episode Verdict / Grade: B- (?), C+ (?)
I’m really not sure how to judge this one. I’ve barely touched on half the weirdness in the episode. Recapping the plot of the premiere is incredibly difficult because it ping-pongs all over the place and is virtually incoherent. I have no idea how most of the scenes connect to one another. I have no idea even what the basic premise of the story is, regarding the thing from outer space. I’m sure that’s intended to be a mystery, but it feels more like it’s just been poorly explained.
The episode is very juvenile in a way that’s sometimes goofy and fun, but is also sometimes fairly dumb. At other times it takes itself far too seriously.
Mostly, the show just feels like it’s trying too hard, like Rogen and Golberg really want you to know how over-the-top outrageous and badass everything is. I’m not sure I’m convinced yet, but I’m willing to give it another episode to see if it settles down any and comes into focus once Rogen and Goldberg hand the day-to-day production duties over to a regular staff.