If you’ve been following along with Evan Valentine’s recaps of the first season of AMC’s Preacher, created by the creative team of Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Sam Catlin, you’ll likely have figured out that the series doesn’t quite follow along with what unfolds in the first volume (of six) in Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon‘s source material. A mighty powerful whatsit named Genesis, the spawn of a demon and an angel having some wild-ass, abominating relations somewhere in the ether, possesses a half-engaged preacher named Jesse Custer, that much is true in the graphic novels and in the thrillingly bizarre series. Beyond that, however, things get a bit complicated and, yes oh yes, there will be spoilers ahead.
Let’s start with the main conflict of the first season, the fight between Jesse, played by Dominic Cooper, and Odin Quincannon (Jackie Earle Haley), the sadistic owner of the meatpacking plant that employs much of the town of Annville, Texas, the show’s main setting. The character of Odin doesn’t come up until the fifth volume of the Preacher graphic novels, and where Rogen, Goldberg, and Catlin give him a slight air of respectability in the show, he is a power-hungry, grotesque creature desperate for acceptance in the books. In Ennis and Dillon’s vision, he has exactly nothing to do with Jesse’s father’s death, never faced a tragedy like the Colorado cable car accident that wiped out everyone he ever cared about, and spends a part of every day having rough sex with a pile of turkeys, sausage links, ribs, and steaks that he’s formed into the figure of a lady. In the season finale, he lovingly cradles a bundled-up figure made of ground chuck in a montage of melancholic godless acts that seem to tease the wholesale extermination of Annville’s populace.
In the gorgeously illustrated panels of the comics, Odin holds the town of Salvation, Texas underneath his fiscal boot heel until Jesse, working as the town’s interim sheriff, ends his rather pathetic, disturbing life with his boot heel. The fact that this is not exactly who we see in the series is important. It speaks to the show’s strange empathy versus the comics which are at once far more cerebral and far more cynical as compared to the show. The comics are built on a ceaselessly clever, densely explored story in a deeply original world; the show is an explosive, energetic series of events that does, in fact, begin to form into something meaningful by the time the vampire Cassidy (John Gilgun), Tulip (Ruth Negga), and Jesse hit the road at the end of “Call and Response.” In the second volume of the comics, Jesse and Cassidy have a discussion about Lauren and Hardy men vs Charlie Chaplin men, how they represent good story vs wild, foolish invention. The graphic novels are the former; the show is the latter.
And that shouldn’t be taken as a knock in any way, even if Jesse and Cassidy might think Chaplin folk are an untrustworthy sort. The severe changes that Rogen, Goldberg, and Catlin made to the source material has resulted in a show that is uniquely of the Rogen-Goldberg perspective, one that is riotously gory, giddily profane, and quietly, immovably humanistic. Mind you, religion or, perhaps more accurately, belief has always been at the center of Rogen and Goldberg’s work, with This Is the End and the upcoming Sausage Party dealing directly with the purpose of existence and the overwhelming enigmas of what comes after. In a sense, what they’ve realized with Preacher is the purest expression thus far of their own distrusting view of organized religion and their ultimate belief in finding personal meaning in life rather than following what is, essentially, an aged guide book.
As an adaptation, Preacher is not even remotely as hard-edged as its source material but remains similarly questioning of a holy, universal plan set forth by some unknowable, all-knowing almighty. The first season’s climactic moment comes when God seemingly comes down to visit Jesse’s congregation and answer some of the gentle folks’ questions about existence, only to be outed by Jesse as an imposter covering for the fact that God has gone missing. The moment reminds me of a great bit George Carlin once did where he posed the idea that God, in His infinite wisdom, might simply not give a shit about His creation and work. The show and the books work off that idea of a world where God’s gone away on business but the series sees the sadness and emptiness that his absence brings on, while the books only seem to get at the anger, bitterness, and savagery of the situation.
Indeed, Cooper is a bit too adorable in the lead role to match up to the John Wayne-adoring Jesse that we see in the comics; perhaps tellingly, Nathan Darrow, best known for his work as Meechum in House of Cards and Mr. Freeze in Gotham, looks and sounds the part resoundingly in the role of Jesse’s father. W. Earl Brown‘s Hugo Root is a far more emotionally complicated creation than the mean, tight-lipped policeman who ignores his self-mutilated son, Eugene (Ian Colletti), and doesn’t live past the first 150 pages of the first volume. The angels Fiore and DeBlanc (Tom Brooke and Boardwalk Empire‘s Anatol Yusef) prove far more active and substantial characters here, as compared to the panicky holy creatures that remain in an otherworldly plane in Ennis and Dillon’s work. Heck, even Eugene, better known as Arseface, proves to be a wise and lovable character (and a symbol of humanistic duty) here in comparison to the vengeance-seeking punk rocker that we come to meet in the books, but as his last appearance this season suggests, we might be seeing him again and his story could end up veering closer to the books.
Of course, in the realm of predicting what we’ll see next season, the last shot of “Call and Response” suggests that we’ll be getting to know the Saint of Killers (Graham McTavish), credited here as “The Cowboy,” much better in the coming episodes. There’s also the matter of Jesse’s mother, who is brought up during a conversation between Jesse and Emily (Lucy Griffiths) – a character that doesn’t exist or act as a familiar proxy for anyone in the books – and is quickly brushed off, though she figures heavily into Ennis and Dillon’s first and fifth tomes. And where our heroes end up on their planned road trip to find the no-good, son-of-a-bitch God will likely say a lot about what storyline they toy with in Season 2. New York, Austin, and San Francisco each hold their own demented passages in the source material, and part of me wondered if Root’s mentioning of New York while “interrogating” Cassidy in “Call and Response” was a sign of things to come or as a passing nod to the group’s interactions with Cassidy’s oldest friend, a journalist named Simon “Si” Coltrane.
It’s easy enough to get frustrated by the fact that we likely won’t see the full, cackling perversion and madness of Ennis and Dillon’s work on screen when one thinks of the New York storyline in the first book, but the San Francisco storyline seems to be imminent. If one needs a hint, look back at the opening minutes of “The Possibilities,” the third episode, in which Tulip hands over a map to her friend, Danni (Julie Dretzin), that seems to come from somewhere called “Grail Industries,” which Danni promptly hands over to a wordless, snuff-film enthusiast who, I have to imagine, will turn out to be Herr Starr, a major character, or one of his minions. If this line is followed, that means that Season 2 will likely bring us in contact with the secretive Grail organization, Starr, and two other unsettling characters, namely Jesus De Sade and Allfather D’Aronique.
For all the things the show leaves out in comparison to the first book of the comics, the series has its own addictive and moving timbre, and it nails the complex relationship between Jesse, Cassidy, and Tulip, which is ultimately what the source material is all about. They’re tougher people on paper, sure, but Gilgun’s Cassidy is just as devoted a friend (at least at first) to Jesse as he is in the comics, perhaps more so even. The comics don’t suggest the wounded and principled creature that sacrifices himself to prove a moralistic point to Jesse, after he banishes Eugene, and Ennis and Dillon, who serve as executive producers here, have a very different view of Tulip and Jesse than Rogen, Goldberg, and Catlin. Sex is a major facet of their relationship in the source material, as Tulip picks up the young, hunky wanderer at an Austin bar and quickly begins a passionate, rollicking outlaw romance with him. In the show, Rogen, Goldberg, and Catlin envision something far more tender and sensitive between them, seeing them as intertwined in how they each remind each other of where they came from, their past and how they’ve come to change over the years. And this turns out to be purely reflective of where the Preacher series differs from the original volumes: seeing life as a painful yet tremendously substantive relationship that grows and changes, rather than a flash-boil, tawdry romance that feels perpetually on the rocks.