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What the Hell Is Happening on ‘Preacher’?

Exactly

AMC/DC Comics/Ringer illustration
AMC/DC Comics/Ringer illustration

What is Preacher? Preacher is a TV show about the embattled Rev. Jesse Custer (played by Dominic Cooper), an ex-career criminal with a strange supernatural power trying his damnedest to save the Texas town of Annville, one of those sleepy Southern hollers that both God and progress kind of passed over. While trying to shepherd his wayward flock, Jesse gets pulled in different directions by his no-bullshit, mercenary ex-girlfriend, Tulip (Ruth Negga), and a debauched 100-plus-year-old vampire from Dublin named Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun) who, at any given moment, would fail every single drug test. See how I did that in a single paragraph?

That’s what it’s about. But what still eludes me is how little the people who made the show seem to care whether you can parse that for yourself.

Preacher didn’t care about airing directly opposite Game of Thrones for the first few weeks of its run. It doesn’t seem to care whether you watch it when it airs or get around to it Tuesday night. Hell, it doesn’t care whether you get it or not. We’re halfway through the first season, and showrunners Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Breaking Bad alum Sam Catlin are still taking their sweet time teasing out origin stories. Most viewers are asking themselves, origin … OF WHAT??

Preacher is based on Garth Ennis’s ’90s comic of the same name, published by the DC subsidiary Vertigo. It was a title that was known for finding the line only to cross it. It employed plenty of dubious plot devices that could be given quarter as thoughtful meditations on the godlessness of man — like an angel who’d never even thought about sinning getting his brains blown out in a crypt. But there’s also a lot of WTF stuff (because the angel isn’t WTF enough), like a guy literally having sex with a doll made exclusively of raw meat, which serves no discernible purpose and obviously wouldn’t translate for television. So it follows that repeated attempts to bring Preacher to the screen failed on account of being too faithful.

Rogen, Goldberg, and Catlin managed to pull off the adaptation by stripping the story down to its tremendously charismatic principal characters and shuffling the rest of the deck, keeping the AMC show in the spirit of the source material while working in updates to make it watchable for 2016. The most compelling of these tweaks is the character of Tulip — who appears as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white woman in the comic — played by the incomparable Negga, who’s of Ethiopian and Irish descent. This isn’t so much a comic book adaptation as it is a complete reimagining. With that in mind, most comparisons to the source material feel kind of moot.

But I’ll do it anyway: Book One of the Preacher reprint collection opens in a diner with Jesse having already found his new power and well-acquainted with both Tulip and Cassidy. In 20 or so pages, the power already has a face and a name — Genesis — and we know that it escaped from Heaven’s R&D department, out from under the not-so-watchful eyes of the nerdy, affable Adelphi, who play lapdog to the Seraphi warrior angels, whom God left in charge when he abandoned his heavenly throne.

Five episodes into the show, all we really know is that Jesse has something inside of him that “isn’t God.” Two awkward Brits in cowboy hats, claiming to be from Heaven, want that something. Also, apparently being a good man is really, really hard. There is no villain or anything that feels like a real conflict yet. Jesse, Cassidy, and Tulip haven’t even met as a trio in earnest.

Things aren’t moving with the urgency that history tells us a 10-episode season should, but to Preacher’s credit, it’s chock-full of haymakers. Everything feels ripe for commentary — like cattle magnate Odin Quincannon (played by Jackie Earle Haley) finding the sound of cows being slaughtered soothing. Or my personal favorite, from the pilot: Tulip killing somebody with an ear of corn and then giving two gawking children a “when a man and a woman love each other” speech while assembling a homemade RPG, which she subsequently uses to blow up an attack chopper. (It’s early yet, but give this woman a spinoff.)

There are thorny questions about faith and religion sprinkled in. In one fantastic scene, Cassidy and Jesse are getting blackout drunk in empty church pews as Cassidy hangs an idea out there: “Maybe this is the me that God wants.” He then lets Jesse swig some of his special coffee machine cleaner/coolant reserve, relieves the reverend of his wallet and keys after he passes out, and later returns to save Jesse’s life by hacking the aforementioned Angels in Cowboy Hats to pieces with a chainsaw.

Watching the show feels like downing Cassidy’s coolant highball: It’s constantly more than you bargained for. It stays true to the source material, not just in its saturated wide shots, brash title screens, and general atmospheric weirdness, but in re-creating the feeling of going to the comic book store with exactly $5 in your pocket to buy something you know your parents wouldn’t want you reading.

Plot details are seemingly willfully obscured so that each new scene feels like a page-turn, revealing so many oh shit moments that they run together. With this madcap brand of safety-off storytelling, the showrunners have taken a running leap past fan service and landed on fan fiction — the tor of nerddom — pushing the envelope almost for the sake of pushing the envelope. Just like Ennis and cocreator Steve Dillon did. Rogen, Goldberg, and Catlin don’t give a single, solitary shit whether you can keep up or not. It’s a frenzied, pulpy, bloody mess — and not “good” storytelling by any standard — but it’s fun as all get out, which is more than can be said of most “good” TV.

However, this pacing. Moving at this made-for-Netflix clip, we’re not going to get to the meat of the story until the second season, which, as someone who’s at least glanced at Book One, I have patience for. It’s difficult to say the same for anyone else, but — at least for now — Rogen and Co. seem fine eschewing traditional storytelling. They’re just trying to give viewers a heart attack.