Preacher: one of the most absurd, twisted, violent, and until now, unadaptable comic books has finally come to life – with one hell of a bang.
Full disclosure: I’m a very big fan of the Preacher graphic novels which were written by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon and were published by Vertigo, an imprint of DC Comics from 1995-2000. Thusly, I went into this pilot with some real trepidation. I’ve been around the adaptation block. I don’t expect adaptations to be word for word – or in this case, panel for panel – but I was hoping the actors would capture their characters, and more importantly producer/directors Seth Rogen (yes, that Seth Rogen) and Evan Goldberg would capture the spirit of Garth Ennis’ wildly irreverent exploration of America. Folks, I’ve got some good news: they do. This was one hell of a pilot, one that managed to retain the more fantastic elements of the series (huge sigh of relief) , while at the same time remaining grounded due to incredibly strong performances from its trio of lead actors and surprisingly deft touch from Rogen and Goldberg, who directed the pilot.
Our story opens with a comet-like…something…traveling through outer space, eventually reaching Earth. Africa, to be precise, where it briefly possesses the body of a preacher before promptly abandoning it in a very messy way. Yep, fantastical elements, check. Violence and gore: check. Off to a good start.
From there we meet Jesse Custer, played by Howard Stark himself, Dominic Cooper. Jesse has recently returned to his hometown of Annville, Texas to follow in his daddy’s footsteps as the town’s Preacher. It’s not going awesomely. None of the erstwhile parishioners in Annville seem to have much interest in Jesse, and that’s fine because Jesse doesn’t seem to care much about what he’s saying at the pulpit. For a Preacher, he seems lower on faith than one in his line of work should be. When he was cast, I was a bit…underwhelmed…by the choice of Dominic Cooper for Jesse (although if I’m being honest, I don’t know of anyone who could’ve lived up to the part in my head), but I’m happy to report he does quite an admirable job. Cooper’s Jesse is a little less harsh and cynical as his comic book counterpart, but he does a fantastic job at portraying a beaten down, skeptical guy, and yet a guy who you get the sense wants to do what’s right – but is stuck in a bit of a rut.
Well, things get unstuck pretty quick. The two other leads are both given delightful introductions. Joseph Gilgun‘s Cassidy, an Irish vampire who’s pretty much (self- admittedly) impossible to understand, enters the fray by literally falling into Annville from a plane after fending off a hoard of vampire hunters in an action packed sequence that perfectly establishes Cassidy’s irreverent, hard drinking, chaos loving vampire. Cassidy is on the run, but we don’t know why – yet. Lucky for Jesse, Cassidy happens to land in Annville just in time to see our world-weary Preacher express his colorful background, and the weirdest friendship ever is born, in a jail cell. Gilgun was delightful in the limited scenes he was in, injecting a nice dose of humor and ridiculousness into the proceedings. Of all the characters adapted from the comic book, Gilgun was the most accurate. He’s looks as if the art has come to life. There are only good things coming from this front.
The final piece of our trifecta is Tulip O’Hare, played with fantastic aplomb by Ruth Negga. In flashback, we’re introduced to Tulip – the gun toting, wise-ass, career troublemaker and ex-girlfriend of Jesse, who latest job has taken a…er, messy turn. She shows up in Jesse’s life to try and tempt him back into a life of crime, an offer Jesse rebuffs, for now. Ruth Negga was probably the most pleasantly surprising element of the show for me. Having been a fan of her stint on Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, I was hoping she had the goods to deliver Tulip from page to screen – and boy does she ever. Negga is utterly believable and real, even while doing some completely unreal things. She brings a grounded, believable performance to what I think is the series most challenging part.
Preacher comic lovers will delight at some of the other elements introduced in the pilot. Yes, everyone can relax – Arseface is indeed present and accounted for. He’s not called Arseface…yet…he’s just Eugene. He’s a little different than in the comic – from the get go he’s established as someone we feel sympathy for, rather than just being the butt (couldn’t resist) of everyone’s jokes. Arsefa-er, Eugene quietly confides in our Preacher that he’s concerned that one can do things so awful, even God can’t forgive them. It’s a crisis of faith Jesse knows all too well. After all, he sees it when he looks in the mirror.
It’s these moments that keep the show grounded despite the otherworldly storyline. Speaking of that, throughout the episode we see glimpses of other religious leaders being blown up around the world just like the one that opened the series in Africa. Tom Cruise even makes an…explosive…cameo (No, really). And when that force inevitably comes for Jesse…..well, I think we all knew our Preacher has a purpose, even if he isn’t quite aware of what it is. And by the end of the episode, events have conspired to set our story in motion.
As most pilots are, this one is primarily set-up. We are introduced to our three main characters, and the supernatural force that is about to invade their lives. It is a tantalizing tease at what we can expect in the season to come. Preacher lovers – are there differences? Sure. They’ve streamlined some things. Arseface, as previously mentioned, is already Arseface. The show’s scope is smaller, taking place primarily in Annville – likely due to budgetary constraints and also the desire not to make it too big, too fast.
There will likely be other such changes along the way that the most pure of comic purists will cry foul at, but we should all be rejoicing here – Rogen and Goldberg have, almost impossibly, constructed a really well made pilot that straddles the line between absurd and grounded with a remarkably nimble touch. It feels fantastical and realistic at the same time, which is much more important for the TV show than it was for the graphic novel. Most importantly, as I mentioned at the top of this review – the spirit of Garth Ennis’ comic is intact, alive and well, and that is the important thing. Of all the ways I imagined Preacher coming to life over the years since I’ve read the comic, it certainly wasn’t the dude from Knocked Up – but man, consider me a believer. If this pilot represents the quality we are going to get going forward, consider me the newest member of Preacher’s flock.