“A hell of a vision” was the name of the very last issue of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher when it came out back in 2000, but it’s an equally fitting title for the very first episode of AMC’s Preacher. The world of Jesse Custer, preacher to the small Texas town Annville and a man doing his damndest to leave behind the violence that comes so naturally to him, is vividly wrought in the first episode of the show conceived by Seth Rogen, Even Goldberg and Sam Caitlin. That show is so different to its source material, though, that it’s best to completely disregard the original as any kind of guide to what’s on the horizon. This creative team and cast have a hell of a new vision but it remains to be seen if that vision can gain any clarity as the season and story progress.
One reason Preacher has struggled to make the transition to film and television—adaptations have been in the works since 1995 when the comic debuted—is its scale both in terms of big, absurd story concepts and its globe-hopping narrative. The first episode of AMC’s show does its best to create an illusion of having that kind of scope while staying within the necessary confines of a cable television series. Things begin zoomed out all the way to a campy depiction of our solar system as shimmering object hurdles towards Earth before crash landing directly into the preaching body of a church leader in Chad. That particular preacher explodes in a geyser of bloody gibbets all over his congregation before the action shifts to Annville and mostly stays there with the good Reverend Jesse Custer for the remainder of the episode. What seems like a big story turns out to be small indeed, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing when it’s grounded by some nimble action and solid character work.
In truth, not much else of consequence happens for the rest of the premiere, its run time instead devoted entirely to introducing our core cast of characters, clueing us into the many dramas of this sinful Texas town, and giving us a thorough view inside the doldrums Jesse is going through in his particular profession. A half-hearted Sunday sermon kicks off Jesse’s tour through the Annville flock: a boy sick of his father being the town bully, Sheriff Root who’s more interested in maintaining racist high school sports traditions than protecting and serving, and the patient church administrator who seems more interested in Jesse becoming a successful preacher than he is himself. What makes Annville so fun to watch here is how these otherwise blank archetypal characters lead to more unusual figures. The town bully’s wife turns out to not be an abuse victim for our hero to save. The berk sheriff’s son turns out to be the most likable character on the show and the one most I most wanted to spend more time with while watching. Good old Eugene Root is also tied to one of the best make up effects I’ve seen on an AMC show, more subtle than the gore elsewhere here and ultimately more physically real than many of the zombies on Walking Dead.
The strength of the supporting cast unfortunately highlights the biggest weakness in Preacher’s start: its lead characters aren’t as intriguing as the world around them yet. Cassidy the vampire is charmingly aloof and lovably creepy, but his circumstances outshine him. We meet him as he’s ambushed by hunters straight out of a ‘98 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in mid-flight where they’re posing as rich dudes on a trip to Vegas and Cassidy’s their in-air bartender. Trapping a vampire on a plane flying directly into sunrise is a great set-up for a scene, but it doesn’t automatically make the vampire someone you care about. Same thing for Priscilla, Jesse’s ex who everyone apparently calls Tulip. Ruth Negga plays the hell out of Tulip here as she uses a corn field and a beat up old farm for maximum comedic and violent effect to dispatch some would-be assassins. Fun as Tulip is, though, she’s more violent manic pixie dreamgirl than a realized person. When she meets up with her old flame Jesse, it’s hard to see why he says something as emotionally fraught as, “I don’t hate you, Tulip. I wouldn’t know how.”
Then again, it’s hard to imagine Jesse feeling much of anything based on this episode. We get glimpses of his tortured past when he flashes back to what seems like the last time he ever saw his father and when he talks to Tulip—as well as his past as an asskicker when he finally confronts that town Bully in a bar fight—but Jesse’s just an empty vessel at this point. That may well be by design. For the show, he’s a catalyst for bringing the other characters into our field of view. In the story, he becomes a host for that powerfully persuasive force from space. As he delivers a rousing speech to his flock, committing to bring them the word of God at the end of the episode, it’s almost like he’s saying things start for real in episode two.
If you’re a fan of the original comic and all of this sounds totally out of left field, it is. Rogen, Goldberg and Catlin have made a version of Preacher that pulls as much from the original as Shakespeare in Love pulled from Romeo and Juliet. Outside of a few story beats, names, and physical characteristics, this is all new material. When Jesse and Cassidy find themselves trapped in the county lock-up, debating the nature of faith with a wit and speed absent in both characters up to that point, the show briefly taps into the subversive but deeply earnest soul that makes the comic such an enduring work. What we’ll see as this vision continues is a mystery, but the potential is there.
Preacher airs on Sundays on AMC at 10pm (PT) in the US, and on Amazon Prime on Mondays in the UK.