Preacher, the new comic book-derived series AMC is obviously hoping will repeat the success of The Walking Dead, is the craziest show to careen across TV screens this year. With a story about a troubled Texas preacher who’s suddenly smacked with supernatural powers; a hard-drinking Irish vampire who regards a curious cow as lunch; British actors serving up thick-as-gravy Southern accents; action that bounces between the Southwest, Russia and Africa; and an incendiary joke about Tom Cruise, Preacher is guaranteed to make you sit up and take notice.
After all that, it takes a few minutes for the other reality of Preacher to sink in – with all its flash and dash, storytelling clarity isn’t the show’s strong suit. Based on the first few episodes, it’s clear that Preacher, which premieres Sunday night on AMC, has Quentin Tarantino–Robert Rodriguez–Coen Brothers bloody style to burn. What’s not so clear? What in the heck is going on.
Jesse Custer (played by the English-born Dominic Cooper) is trying to follow in his late father’s footsteps as a preacher in the dusty, dead-end burg of Annville, Texas. Jesse has a tendency to gloomily smoke, while Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash tunes play on the soundtrack. We know he got into trouble in the past, but now he’s wearing the clerical collar, and delivering low-energy sermons to a dwindling congregation. The Annville (and yes, it hardly seems accidental that the town sounds like anvil) townsfolk are a motley crew. The most normal-seeming is Emily (Lucy Griffiths), who keeps the church running while Jesse imoodily stares into space. The others include a local creep named Donnie (Derek Wilson), the town lawman (W. Earl Brown), and his facially disfigured son (Ian Colletti).
But then some real live wires turn up. Jesse’s ex-girlfriend, Tulip (Ruth Negga) and Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun), an Irish vampire, are all sorts of bad news, but, boy, are they fun to watch. Tulip, as wittily played by the Ethiopian-Irish Negga (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) is always teetering on the wrong side of law, whether cunningly talking her way out of a speeding ticket or giving as good as she gets in violent fight scenes (there’s ear removal involved.) The English Gilgun (“This is England”) gives Cassidy an Irish accent thick as a pint of Guinness, and an anarchic spirit that makes him the perfect wild-card mate for the brooding Jesse. Things get even more complicated when Jesse is inhabited by a mysterious entity, which gives the preacher the power to literally tell people what to do. Jesse tries out his new ability in a couple of ways, ranging from encouraging the local creep to put a gun in his mouth to insisting Cassidy hop and reveal a secret (“I like Justin Bieber!”)
The pilot, directed by executive producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Superbad, The Interview, This is the End) skips from scenes of violence to dark humor, but its unpredictable energy sets the tone for what’s to come. Rogen and Goldberg clearly adore their material. “We love the comic,” Rogen said during a Preacher panel at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, in January. He added that while they hope Preacher appeals to fellow comic-lovers, “our first and foremost goal is to make a great, entertaining, fun television show that, if you’ve never heard of the comic book, you love.” But where “The Walking Dead” is easy to follow even for those of us who haven’t read the comics – humans vs. zombies, got it — Preacher is a thorny thicket of sloooowly revealed backstory, demons, angels and a villain who runs a local slaughterhouse.
Rogen and Goldberg, along with executive producer and showrunner Sam Catlin (Breaking Bad), are drawing on the ’90s comic franchise written by the Irish-born Garth Ennis, and illustrated by Englishman Steve Dillon. From descriptions of the comics, it sounds like the U.K. duo created a twisty mash-up of Hollywood Western tales, horror, science fiction and fractured theology. Whether the Preacher series creative team will keep all its elements in balance or giddily drive off a cliff, is anybody’s guess. But, judging from the early episodes, Preacher is a wild ride that will be worth hanging on for.
Preacher premieres with a 90-minute episode, 10 p.m. Sunday, May 22