A sneak peek of AMC’s lollapalooza new series “Preacher” screened on 3/14 to a packed house at Austin’s Paramount movie palace during the SXSW film/music/interactive festival in advance of the show’s official 5/22 launch. Reactions were decidedly mixed. On one end of the spectrum, the raucous cheering and applause that greeted the premiere (directed by series executive producers and big screen comedy zillionaires Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg) seemed to indicate a sure-fire crowd pleaser, though grousing after the lights came up (in the theater and on Twitter) focused on the episode’s scattershot storytelling and lack of character development.
Your own reaction may vary based on your familiarity with the 75-issue DC Comics series (by writer Garth Ennis and artists Steve Dillon and Glenn Fabry) upon which the show is based, as well as your general receptiveness to ultra-violence, pop metaphysics, light blasphemy, stoner comedy, and “try anything” kitchen-sink plotting.
The original source material follows the adventures of a Lone Star preacher blessed (or cursed) with the Word of God (or, more specifically, the ability to make people follow his commands, to sometimes horrifically self-destructive effect). Naturally, such godly power comes with a hell of a lot of godly responsibility for the book’s central protagonist, Jesse Custer, a former outlaw gone straight-ish who finds himself tussling with Heaven, Hell, and everything in between after receiving his mysterious supernatural “gift”.
In the comic, Ennis mixed Big Questions about morality and the meaning of life with a gonzo bouillabaisse of genres and influences to create a compelling punk rock vampire conspiracy Western about love, death, revenge, addiction, God’s Judgment, and who, if anyone, judges Him.
It’s a lot to squeeze into a basic cable TV series, and there’s a case to be made that the premiere of AMC’s adaptation (scripted by former “Breaking Bad” writer/co-producer Sam Catlin) gets too many plates spinning too soon in an effort to hook fans of the comic with familiar elements. One minute, we’re listening to Custer (Dominic Cooper) preach a half-hearted sermon to his bored congregation, then suddenly we’re up in a Lear jet with a phalanx of vampire hunters or down in a pulp fiction corn field car chase or over in Africa watching unidentified men doing mysterious things in the aftermath of an inexplicable supernatural event…
…and then we’re back in Texas again, watching a slightly more human-scale drama about a haunted, conflicted preacher wrestling with his faith (and, the show hints, a seriously tragic past).
At the same time, there’s also a sense that the series is scaling down the comic’s epic sprawl, making Custer’s parish a kind of home base where most of the major players will congregate in between globe-trotting side trips. By the end of the first episode, for instance, three major characters from the comic series have arrived in the small town of Annville. First up: a nihilistic, hard-drinking Irish vampire named Cassidy (played by Joe Gilgun with a brogue so thick that AMC should seriously consider subtitles for his dialogue). Next: Tulip, Custer’s former romantic and criminal partner (a blonde white character in the comics portrayed in the series, via a wise bit of color-blind casting, by the Ethiopian/Irish actress Ruth Negga, channeling Maya Rudolph). And finally, there’s fan favorite Arseface (Ian Colletti), who, for those unfamiliar with the “Preacher”-verse, is a teenager with a face that’s…well, you’ll see.
And yet, even if all the various parts of the premiere don’t exactly fit together, the individual scenes are fast-paced and generally entertaining, from the visceral satisfaction of a particularly odious character’s well-earned comeuppance to a great throwaway gag about a certain celebrity’s own instant karma. Plus, Cooper (who was clearly hit with the “tall, dark, and handsome stick” as one character notes) is a charismatic lead, with just enough swagger and gravitas to (maybe) center all the anarchy over the long haul.
But even if the center cannot hold and things fall apart, Yeats-style, the premiere of “Preacher” is definitely good enough to keep me watching for at least a few more episodes…if only to see if, when, and how fast the whole thing goes rocketing off the rails.