AMC’s adaptation of the cult comic Preacher is clearly intended to be something of a companion piece to the network’s similarly comics-derived The Walking Dead, but going off of the new series’ debut episode, the two are dramatically different in their respective approaches. The Walking Dead is a very simple show, by design. The world has ended, zombies run rampant, and our heroes try to stay alive while encountering other, more sinister factions of survivors. Preacher is far more complicated than that. Its first outing just about breaks its neck to set up its unwieldy premise. Spanning from outer space to Africa to Texas to Kansas to Russia, the pilot is in a mad dash to convey its world and characters to us. It mostly pulls it off, but you can see the sweat from the effort.
In a comically low-fi opening, a mysterious force is bounding about the cosmos before touching down in a small African village, taking up residence in an African minister’s body mid-sermon before the man’s body explodes gruesomely almost immediately after. The force careens across the globe, entering the bodies of holy men the world over, indiscriminate of religion (most amusingly, including Scientology maven Tom Cruise), with similarly ghastly results. Meanwhile, we meet Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), the preacher of the flyspeck town of Annville, Texas, who has become so disillusioned with his calling that he’s been reduced to delivering sermons to his flock that are little more than trumped-up Friday Night Lights recaps. After mass, a young boy approaches Jesse to ask for his help with his abusive father, since he’s heard tell that Jesse was something of a bruiser before he became a man of the cloth. Jesse says that the matter should be left up to the local sheriff, which is essentially telling the boy that he’s out of luck.
Several other characters populate Jesse’s small corner of the world, or are about to, and Preacher has its work cut out for it introducing them all. There’s Emily Woodrow (Lucy Griffiths), the church organist and single mother who seems to have a complicated relationship with Jesse. We also meet Tulip O’Hare (Ruth Negga), Jesse’s trouble-magnet ex who bounds back into his life with chaos nipping at her heels. Most intriguingly is Cassidy (Joe Gilgun), a louche Irish vampire who enters the picture by freefalling from a plane after mutilating a band of would-be slayers. Most randomly is Eugene “Arseface” Root (Ian Colletti), the son of the sheriff whose mouth is hideously distorted after a botched suicide attempt.
To those (like myself) ignorant of the comic, it’s difficult to pin down for the longest time where Preacher is going with all of this. We know Jesse has a troubled past, where he directly witnessed his father’s murder, and we also learn that his rough-and-tumble past is no baseless rumor when he ultimately dismantles the abusive father and his Civil War reenacting buddies in a bar fight. But it’s not until the pilot’s near-conclusion where the premise finally snaps into place, as the strange force finds its way into Jesse’s body, yet doesn’t liquefy him, instead imbuing him with the same powers of persuasiveness that Jessica Jones’ Kilgrave possessed, powers which have immediately questionable results when Jesse tells a henpecked member of his congregation to “open his heart” to his overbearing mother and the man takes that suggestion to its most horrifically literal conclusion.
Though Preacher strains to set up its world and inhabitants, its cast is mostly strong straight out of the gate. Negga is very impressive as a brutally resourceful femme fatale, a marked contrast to the airless villainess she played on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Gilgun brings a Colin-Farrell-meets-Spike spit-shine charisma to Cassidy. Cooper, peculiarly, is sort of the weaker link of the cast. His struggle with the role’s requisite southern drawl is one way that the show does dovetail with The Walking Dead (though Andrew Lincoln’s attempts are shakier). The series has unusual masterminds in the forms of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, whose sensibilities are nowhere to be seen in this episode, save perhaps for the juvenile and obscene phrases the locals like to create by reorganizing the letters of the inspirational words on the church’s sign.
So much is bitten off and chewed in the pilot that it remains to be seen just what sort of series Preacher will become. The series thus far sports a stylish look (the oversized location-setting title cards are a trait it shares with Captain America: Civil War) and the material’s idiosyncratic oddness acts as a lure for sticking around in the weeks to come. We may be off to a somewhat perplexing start, but it would seem truly blasphemous to walk away from something this unique.
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