I’m not always a fan of TV shows or movies in which the main plot objective or theme can be repeated like a mantra, but in the case of the second season of AMC’s Preacher, clarity brings with it a tremendous measure of relief.
“We’re looking for God,” Dominic Cooper’s Jesse Custer says at least a half-dozen times in the three new Preacher episodes sent to critics. And at least as often, one of our heroes mentions that God is missing. It’s repetitive and a little obvious, but it’s also reflective of how much more effective Preacher is in its return, which begins Sunday night. Last season, none of the characters could have told you what they were trying to do without charts and pictures and five minutes of exposition.
I thought I liked the first season of Preacher. I gave it a very positive review and watched every episode with promptness. Then, as of its finale in July, I never thought about it again. Nothing stuck. Nothing resonated.
I think the problem is that, while the first season was often truly fun and aggressive TV-making, it was pretty dismal storytelling on the most basic level. Especially after the pilot, the main characters were almost completely reactive. Their needs were rarely clear, they spent most of the season loitering in the same Texas town for no demonstrable reason, and our three main characters spent almost no time together.
So it stands as a major triumph for season two that Jesse, Tulip (Ruth Negga) and Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun) are generally working as a unit with a central goal.
It’s not like the second season of Preacher has become simplistic. In cosmic terms, it’s a pretty huge deal that God has gone missing and the only three people interested in investigating are a vampire, a preacher inhabited by a powerful force called Genesis and a frequently violent vagabond. Many of the things that happened last season, especially those involving the Adelphi angels DeBlanc (Anatol Yusef) and Fiore (Tom Brooke) are still relevant, and the show’s expanding theology can either come across as a more glib American Gods or a less pretentious American Gods, depending on your perspective.
What showrunner (not to be confused with Preacher creators Garth Ennis and the late Steve Dillon) Sam Catlin has done is finally given the show structure. As it probably should have been from three or four episodes in, Preacher is now a road trip/mission series with Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy trying, as I’ve already noted, to search for God. They don’t all have the exact same motivation, nor are their motivations exactly what your motivations might be if you went on a metaphorical search for God. But in the early episodes, they go from location to location gathering information.
In addition to that thing the main characters want, they’re also being pursued by the Saint of Killers (Graham McTavish), an unkillable force of vengeance introduced gradually last season. That means they’re unified in going toward something and also in moving away from something, and that breeds momentum. It’s heavily serialized, and yet the hours are pleasantly episodic, bridged by cliff-hangers. It feels like a TV series, which isn’t always how the show felt last year.
Preacher also feels visually smoother. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg directed the first two hours, as they did last season, and what made the show so audacious in the pilot was all the elements it tossed up onscreen, a hodgepodge that was crazed and awash in influences. It was a nutty, barely sustainable muddle.
These new episodes are still homage-heavy, especially the opening scene, with its degraded film stock and nods to a grind-house/Hal Needham aesthetic. They’re also still gory and funny because Preacher is a show that you shouldn’t watch if you aren’t ready to giggle at varied use of intestines as props, squashed heads, shotgun-blasted heads and gallons of liberally spattered blood. But maybe they’ve adapted that Coco Chanel rule of removing one narrative or genre embellishment (or 10) before you leave the house?
Putting the characters together — not always, as they’re still capable of personal missions — lets Preacher draw much more humor, and occasionally emotion, from the dynamics between the core trio, boasting an even stranger assortment of attempted accents this season than previously.
I still think Cooper is giving what is individually the weakest performance on the show, but when he’s opposite Gilgun, he becomes funnier, and when he’s opposite Negga, he gains a gravity and feeds off of her romantic urgency. Gilgun and Negga are both more lively as individuals — she, in particular, is a firecracker, basically the opposite of her intensely internalized Oscar-nominated turn in Loving — and when you put them together with Cooper, Preacher really gets moving. A lot of the supporting characters from the first season are gone, but the road-trip format allows for guest-stars like Glenn Morshower in the premiere and a Chuck favorite in the second episode.
The clearer storytelling benefits the actors. Or maybe nothing has actually changed, and maybe the past year since Preacher premiered has seen enough out-there programming debut — Legion, Twin Peaks, the aforementioned American Gods, etc. — that Preacher just doesn’t feel as outre anymore.
I don’t think that’s it. I think Preacher was just a complicated adaptation process, and the first season found the creators doing the best they could just to get this world moving, while the second season finds them more comfortable and better able to really tell this story.
Cast: Dominic Cooper, Joseph Gilgun, Ruth Negga, Graham McTavish
Creators: Sam Catlin, Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen
Premieres Sunday, June 25, and Monday, June 26, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.