The super-sized pilot for AMC’s Preacher runs 64 minutes without commercials and it takes nearly 40 minutes to reach a young man whose visage resembles nothing so much as a rectum. Fans of Garth Ennis and Steven Dillon’s revered Vertigo comic series know the character fittingly as “Arseface” and in most pilots his appearance would be the ultimate litmus test moment, that point at which audiences know for sure if they’re in or out.
In Preacher, though, Arseface arrives after graphically exploding spiritual charlatans, a viscera-filled brawl on a private jet, at least one sympathetically doomed animal and all manner of what the devout will likely consider sacrilege. Directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and written by Sam Catlin, the pilot for Preacher is one litmus test moment after another, resulting in a show sure to attract fiercely dedicated acolytes, but also send some squeamish or easily confused viewers scurrying in distaste. I somehow suspect the creators wouldn’t have it any other way.
Through four episodes, count me mostly in the positive column for Preacher, which is uneven, pulpy, profane and occasionally nonsensical, but also reeks of high ambition, a challenging moral worldview, richly visual storytelling and frequent audacity. Sporting star-making turns from Ruth Negga and Joe Gilgun, Preacher provides a jolt of programming adrenaline as we head into what used to be the summer doldrums.
Preacher launched in comic form over 20 years ago and those two decades saw many attempts to translate the property to the big and small screen. Were it to be adapted literally, Preacher would be epic in scope and would be slapped with the strictest rating imaginable.
The version arriving on AMC feels a little more intimate, its language slightly more genteel, its violence slightly less gory. It’s still recognizably Preacher.
Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) is a Texas preacher with a criminal background and a growing crisis of faith, amidst the economic decline of his small town and darkness in the world. This doubting preacher encounters a supernatural force that isn’t immediately explained, but leaves him with a renewed commitment to stare down evil, an inspiration that arrives at roughly the same time as rambunctious Irish miscreant Cassidy (Gilgun) and the return of Custer’s ex Tulip (Negga), the cheerfully transgressive Bonnie to his reformed Clyde.
Figuring out which Preacher details to share is difficult because the series is hesitant to give explanations, which could lead to some head-scratching, but it also introduces characters with an instantly ingratiating energy that many pilots could learn from. The speed with which Cassidy and Tulip become favorites is a tribute to smartly thrusting viewers into action with them and letting us discover these characters and their unique perspectives in the most stressful of circumstances. Fans of the British Misfits already know that Gilgun is aces at making the lewdest and most unrepentant of behavior come across as likable and, at times, childlike in its innocence. Gilgun makes his every on-screen moment feel unpredictable and dangerous. The same is true of Negga, another Misfits veteran, who turns Tulip into a dervish of rule-breaking glee with an empowering feminist twist.
Regrettably, the third member of the core triangle is the one who left me cold and he happens to be the title character. Custer’s battle with his devotion and his demons has to be the manifestation of all of the show’s extremes, but Cooper is stuck in muted shades of sullen and grumpy. Having seen The Devil’s Double, I know that Cooper is capable of the manic duality the role demands, but he’s opted for a slow-burn on a show that’s painting in bolder colors.
Cooper also is having a harder time with his accent than his co-stars, though I actually dug Preacher‘s decision to fill its lead Texan roles (including against-type Lucy Griffiths as allegedly plain church organist Emily) with British and Irish actors and to cast a Brit as Irish. This casting strategy would jeopardize authenticity in a piece that prized authenticity, but everything in Preacher is meant to be heightened and just a bit off. Even the other castmembers who come closer to using their native accents, including Jackie Earle Haley as a bespectacled local businessman, W. Earl Brown as the sheriff and Anatol Yusef and Tom Brooke as a mysterious hat-loving duo, match their performances to the tone of oddness.
Visually, the Texas town of Annville has a mythic, Badlands-style sprawl, but without a Terrence Malick sense of reverie. Instead, Rogen & Goldberg go for a pastiche of visual styles ranging from an opening that apes 1950s sci-fi to Tarantino/Rodriguez grindhouse gnarliness. They nail the piece’s humor, which is necessary to offset the violence and general human ugliness, but there are also bouts of empty aesthetic overcompensation that vanish in later episodes as producing director and Breaking Bad favorite Michael Slovis is able to install some welcome precision. Preacher comes on aggressively, but the third and fourth episodes give Catlin and the writers the chance to explore some of bigger picture theological issues and hint at growing maturity, even if that maturity still comes with gruesome jokes and pop culture references galore. Even in its most unsteady early moments, Preacher parlays its messiness into an anarchy that’s thematically on-point.
“You’ve got to be one of the good guys. ‘Cuz why?” Custer’s father asks him in a flashback. Young Custer replies, “‘Cuz there’s way too many of the bad.” It’s a new millennium, but the fin de siècle dread that fueled the Preacher comic is equally relevant in 2016. Maybe all of those failed adaptations were part of some divine plan to bring Preacher to the screen at a moment in which distrust of religious and political authority figures is ever-growing, where scandals and over-exposure make it clear that even our better angels have broken wings.
Cast: Dominic Cooper, Ruth Negga, Joseph Gilgun
Developed for television by: Seth Rogen & Adam Goldberg
Showrunner: Sam Catlin
Premieres: Sunday, May 22, at 10 p.m. ET/PT (AMC). Airs Sundays at 9 p.m. starting June 5.