AMC’s Preacher opens with a cacophony of sound and fury, one that sets up the show’s bold, unique visual presence and intensely visceral style. Whether it’s the crunch of gravel and sand being pulverized underneath a boot heel on an arid Texas afternoon, or the ripping of teeth through nose cartilage during a high-speed fight in a vintage vehicle, Preacher wants you to be up close and personal with its story, no matter how uncomfortable it gets.
It’s hard to summarize Preacher (based on the graphic novel by Garth Ennis and Stephen Dillon) for those unfamiliar with it, but the very bare bones setup is that there’s an intergalactic entity that comes to Earth and settles itself within the body of a Texas preacher, Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper). There are many other stories in Preacher that could be series unto themselves: the mechanics of small town life, a crisis of faith for a preacher, the advent of an Irish vampire (Cassidy, played with aplomb by Joseph Gilgun) and a tough, occasionally bazooka-carrying ex-girlfriend (Tulip, played by a fearless Ruth Negga). But all of these elements collide together here to create a memorable, if sometimes cluttered tale that is, at its core, about choice and accountability.
I first saw Preacher back in January at the TCA Press Tour, and the details of its pilot stuck with me — vividly — for months afterwards. I was tempted to read the comic, but held off until this review (of the first four episodes of an eventual ten). An adaptation has to stand on its own, without prior knowledge, and while Preacher teases many things for fans of the graphic novel, it can be an initially confusing and unwieldy tale for those unsure of what to expect.
Preacher sets up a deeply cynical world that is humorous, profane, and violent. The pilot is directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who brought the story to life for AMC, and in the episodes that follow the influence of the Coen Brothers is definitely felt. The bleak, gruesome humor of Fargo coupled with the Western influences of No Country for Old Men and True Grit feel familiar, but Preacher stands on its own as one of the wildest entries to modern television that I can remember.
Where Preacher succeeds and other series have failed is that it grounds its style with substance. Though I’m endlessly amused by Tulip and Cassidy, who bring an enormous amount of humor (and occasionally, a surprising amount of pathos), the core of the story lies with Jesse, and the decisions he has to make about what kind of a person he is once he possesses this new, incredible power to control the actions of others. He’s a preacher, yes, but he has a dark past that is alluded to within the story and visually. An unforgettable bar fight in the premiere episode sets the tone for Jesse’s internal conflicts, something he wrestles with mightily throughout the opening episodes.
But Jesse also connects with people in a genuine way. Life in Annville seems fairly terrible. Its inhabitants are poor, depressed, overworked and overburdened. Jesse visits a number of citizens who have faced unfortunate fates, most incredibly, a boy who survived shooting himself in the face. He’s now called Arseface (Ian Colletti), and his sweetness is consistently juxtaposed by the horror of his appearance, and the shock of those who run into him unexpectedly.
It’s against this kind of darkness and sadness that Jesse fights each week from the pulpit, and soon, within himself and his impulses. Preacher mixes up this central tale with flashbacks to Jesse’s past, trips to the distant past (1881, in one example), pitstops in other countries, and in the way it expands the world of Annville exceptionally quickly and without much explanation. There’s good and bad to that strategy, as Preacher is definitely crafted as novelistic storytelling, with less of an interest in creating episodic stories than building up its season-long tale. That requires a lot of investment — and faith — right off the bat from viewers, but to be fair, the premiere is a seductive start.
The issue of faith is one that’s dealt with fairly cavalierly in the series, although there are moments with Jesse tackles it with true understanding and grace. Still, Preacher is set on making sure we are more familiar with the darkness of the world and truly know the bleakness of what seems like a chaotic existence, one where the question of God and fate gets lost in the grim daily grind. A theme that presents itself over and over again in the series so far, though, is that of transformation — a desire almost always met with frustration. When Jesse is then given the ability to transform others, though, the question becomes intensely personal: how will this transform him?
Preacher makes that personal struggle its exceptionally compelling core, though I wish it spent even more time ruminating on the answer. Still, visual gags like a severed arm still clutching a rogue chainsaw and the many near-deaths sustained by everyone’s favorite vampire are endearing diversions along the way. The cartoonish and supernatural elements heighten Preacher’s story and make it unique, though its foundation remains universal, and its cast make even the most unbelievable elements feel knowable and intimate.
Despite its strong start, the show dawdles in its fourth episode, and it hasn’t quite found the right rhythm to tell its story while juggling so many characters and tales. Its appeal is a niche one, even though artistically and narratively it’s bold, unique, and vividly rendered. Its ever-expanding cast (including Jackie Earle Hayley, Lucy Griffiths, and W. Earl Brown) find ways to make their occasionally brief moments onscreen memorable, and there’s a pull to know more about this wacky world while also being repulsed by it. Like the force within Jesse, it’s hard to tell if we’re being led somewhere very good, or very bad, but it’s essential we find out.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Bombastic television
Preacher premieres Sunday, May 22nd on AMC. Check back on Collider for weekly recaps from Evan Valentine.