TV Review: Preacher - Pilot Episode
EPISODE 1: "Pilot"
SYNOPSIS: Preacher is the story of Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), a conflicted preacher in a small Texas town who is inhabited by a mysterious entity that allows him to develop a highly unconventional power. Jesse embarks on a journey to, literally, find God, joined by his ex-girlfriend Tulip (Ruth Negga) and an Irish vagabond named Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun).
REVIEW: The “unadaptable” comic series from Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon as finally been adapted after years of false starts and changing hands. What began as a feature to be directed by Rachel Talalay starring James Marsden as the titular character, which then morphed into a potential TV series on HBO with GHOST RIDER’s Mark Steven Johnson at the helm, has now settled into a home at AMC with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg leading the charge in bringing the saga of Jesse Custer to life. The only question now is: Did they pull it off?
As someone who has read the entire run of the comic series and found myself often thrilled, offended, shocked, and downright invested in every panel, I can say that the spirit of Preacher is very much alive in AMC’s show. Now, I realize that not everyone who watches this show has read the comic (but, seriously, you should), so I’m going to tackle this on both fronts; as an adaptation and simply as a new show.
Preacher tells the story of Jesse Custer, a preacher who runs a parish in the small town of Annville, Texas where he is struggling with his past demons, while trying to legitimately help the people in his congregation. Things change drastically when Custer is suddenly “possessed” by something unknown; something that gives him the power of God. But, more on that in a bit.
Best known for his roles in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (and Agent Carter TV series) and NEED FOR SPEED, Dominic Cooper has got a quiet cool about him that makes for a more reserved and emotional portrayal of Custer, but not without the signature mean streak. Cooper plays Custer with a more vulnerable approach than his comic persona, but it’s no less engaging, especially as he begins to unravel and we see the darker shades of his personality emerge. He's a little slow to charm at first, but when he warms up he absolutely embodies the role.
But, Cooper’s Preacher is only as strong as his back-up, as the two mainstays from the comic, his past love, Tulip, and Irish vampire best bud, Cassidy, make up the story's backbone. Tulip is played by Ruth Negga, who may not have the traditional chopped blonde locks, but is every bit the feisty and violent version we know from the comics. And, definitely more playful. Cassidy is played by Joseph Gilgun, who isn’t the spikey-haired, dimpled vagabond vampire from the books in appearance, but is everything you’d want from the enigmatic persona off the page. Oddly, he looks and talks almost exactly like Justin Theroux from CHARLIE’S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE. And it works rather beautifully.
The story of Preacher begins with a mysterious force that emerges from the cosmos and rockets toward Earth (in a cool, retro-film sequence, like a high school science documentary), a comet of light that wails like a baby (comic fans will know this as “Genesis” although it’s not referenced as such in the pilot). Once the entity hits Earth it begins a journey to bond with someone (notably a Man of God), but doesn’t hit it’s mark the first time out as it did in the comics. Rather, it goes from place to place, leaving behind a bloody mess as it does, seeking out the perfect host for its power. It’s a fun concept and expands on its introduction in the comics, which left all of Jesse Custer’s congregation in ashes (something that most definitely does not happen here). And that’s where Preacher, the show, takes its own shape. While pulling from the source material heavily, it reimagines and repurpsoses much of it, paying homage, while doing its own thing. It’s a smart and clever approach and makes it a new, yet familiar experience for comic fans and something fresh and original for non comic fans. That’s no easy feat.
We see Cooper’s Custer interact with the townspeople of Annville, often advising or helping in some small way, even if just hearing out their problems. But, he’s conflicted about it. He’s conflicted about his own confidence in God and it drives his internal conflict. His belief is waning. Beyond that, when Ruth Negga’s Tulip arrives back in town, he’s once again reminded of who he’s running from, with the common theme of “we are who we are” pounding at his doorstep.
Another major difference from the comics to the show is that the pilot sets up a number of side characters that are obviously meant to stick around for a while, with each creating a deeper connection to Custer. Some are new to the world of Preacher, while others are straight from the book. There’s Lucy Griffith’s church receptionist that has an obvious crush on Jesse, a married couple that seemingly enjoy their abusive relationship together, Sheriff Hugo Root (W. Earl Brown) and his son, Arseface (Ian Colletti), a suicide survivor with a face that matches the name, and many more add-ons that serve to create the environment of Annville. All of that would seem normal for a new TV show, except that the comic is basically a road-trip book, which has Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy traveling all over the place in their ultimate mission (which isn’t quite revealed in the opener).
There’s a number of great set-ups and introductions in the pilot that allude to the past and future. We see flashbacks of Jesse’s father (a Preacher himself in the show, again deviating from the comics) being killed, leaving Jesse with the advice given straight from the comics, which is to “be one of the good guys, because there’s way too many of the bad.” We see a flashback intro of Tulip, which involves a fight inside a runaway car through a cornfield and then some crafty weapons building to take out an aircraft, which is completely new to the show, but well in spirit of the comic.
Cassidy’s introduction is also a new one, which spells out his dilemma and identity all in one shot. He finds himself being hunted by a religious cult that seeks to destroy his kind (vampires) and in a mid-air battle we see the full wildness that the show can take on, which mirrors the insanity from the comics. It’s a great start on that front and fans of the bloody, over-the-top violence will find that it’s well in line with the book. There’s a bar brawl near the end of the episode that finds Custer and Cassidy taking out some unseemly characters and it’s got the right tone and excitement that you’d hope for. Ennis and Dillon could easily have written any of these “new” sequences and they’d feel right at home on the page or screen.
When Jesse is at his lowest he finds himself confronted with the entity, which seems to have found its perfect host. Why that is (at least in the show) remains a mystery, but it instills within Custer the power that makes the comic one hell of a wild ride: The Word of God. This essentially allows Custer to make people do whatever he says when he wants them to. And quite literally. There’s a lot of crazy that goes down in the comics as a result of this and the show gives us a great tease at the end with that potential. Again, not something from the comics, but it absolutely could be. Unfortunately, they abandoned the “red eye” effect for The Word, using more of a voice change/shaky cam thing, which I found a bit disappointing. But, it’s more of a nitpick than anything. The effect still exists regardless and I look forward to seeing it’s creative uses in the future (and having seen the first three episodes, there are definitely more).
As a lifelong fan of the comic, I think Rogen, Goldberg, and showrunner Sam Catlin (Breaking Bad) have struck a fine balance between telling the story to fans and non-fans, retaining the spirit, tone, and character that makes the comic so great. In many ways it’s like a retelling of the story, but still hits all the same beats. In that sense, it’s kind of brilliant. Having seen three of the follow on episodes, I can say that it’s not a fluke, either. As nervous as I was to see this be potentially botched, I’m now hooked to see how they unfold the insane journey of Jesse, Cassidy, and Tulip. There’s so much potential and a terrific set-up that should really allow this show to grow, take shape, and make a great compliment to the series that inspired it. Here’s to a successful series, pardner.
COMIC CONNECTIONS (AND NOTABLE OMISSIONS):
The beer they drink in the show is called The Bane of Ratwater (as well as a Ratwater Whiskey) and features an image of none other than The Saint of All Killers on it. A nice little tease of things to come. And, oh yes, The Saint of All Killers is coming.
Comic Line: "Jaysis" (Cassidy's signature Irish accent pronunciation of the word)
Comic Line: "You gotta be one of the good guys. 'Cause why?"
"'Cause there's way too many of the bad."
Quincannon Meat Factory - One of the characters works here, showing that Odin Quincannon's presence will be felt in Annville.
No “red eyes” when The Word of God is spoken
No zippo with the words “Fuck Communism” on it. Yet.
No John Wayne conscience talking to Jesse. Yet.