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‘Preacher’ (Finally) Gets Going

But the AMC show took its sweet time

AMC
AMC

Maybe it’s fitting that a show called Preacher gave me an honest-to-goodness conversion moment. But that moment was a long time coming.

AMC’s high-profile freshman series is something of a genre mongrel: a supernatural core with a mean streak of black comedy and a thick, smoggy layer of Southern crime. In this, it’s faithful to its inspiration, a ’90s comics series of the same name by Northern-Irish American writer Garth Ennis and English artist Steve Dillon. That’s about where the similarities end. Creators Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Sam Catlin kept Preacher’s core trio of characters — a preacher possessed by a divine spirit, his vampire BFF, and his tough-as-nails ex-girlfriend — and junked virtually all of their globe-trotting adventures, trapping the action in the sleepy desert amber of Annville, Texas.

Both this style of adaptation and the slow-burn effect the series has produced have been widely praised. My colleague Micah Peters, for example, found the show flawed, but ultimately compelling — it seems to pride itself on being confusing, and doesn’t look or feel like anything else on TV. But every religious show, even one as deliberately blasphemous as this, needs its share of apostates, and until now I’ve been one of them.

Preacher’s reconception may have been necessary, but it seemed to have gone too far in a direction opposite the comics. For fully half of its 10-episode first season, it felt like the show had its thumb stuck on the pause button. There was the inciting incident, in which a half-demon, half-angel being possesses Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), criminal turned flailing man of God, and gives him the power to command people with his voice. And then there were four episodes of leisurely world-building. Jesse took time to discover the extent and origin of his powers; Preacher itself took time to introduce its characters. Other aspects of the plot were missing altogether — most notably, any degree of conflict. Giving your protagonist divine power typically means giving them an adversary to match, but Jesse got only a handful of annoyances. Preacher had a gorgeous engine: an arresting look, great and complementary performances, and intriguing character beats. But it left that engine idling for more than a month, a pace that was at first baffling, then borderline infuriating. It was also, again, extremely weird. Where was this going, and more importantly, when would it get there?

Preacher finally offered an answer at the climax of its sixth episode, with an incident that kick-started a chain reaction of significant, if belated, leaps forward. There had been hints that Jesse might not be using his power responsibly, but they remained just that. But a confrontation between Jesse and Eugene (Ian Colletti), a local teenager whose suicide attempt leaves him with the unfortunate (and accurate) moniker of “Arseface,” crystallizes the conflict. Eugene tells Jesse his moral shortcuts are wrong, and it’s a message the preacher doesn’t want to hear. So he tells Eugene to go to hell — and before the words are even out of Jesse’s mouth, Eugene’s vanished into thin air, Leftovers-style.

Jesse’s ensuing moral crisis catalyzes a whole slew of previously ambling subplots. We get substantive backstory that reveals Jesse’s guilt over the death of his father. We get real sparks — literal, actual sparks! — between Jesse and his pal Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun), who chooses the exact wrong moment (i.e., daytime) to reveal he’s a creature of the night, setting himself on fire in the hopes it’ll shock his friend into admitting he screwed up. We even get the well-timed peak at some long-running tensions between Jesse and Odin Quincannon (Jackie Earle Haley), a capitalist creep with designs on Jesse’s church.

All this adds some much-needed momentum that’s only continued to snowball over the last few weeks. More intriguingly, though, it’s finally begun to add to the source material rather than subtract from it, a move that retroactively makes the case for the show’s deliberate approach. In the comics, the question of whether Jesse would abuse his power is settled with little more than a “he’s a good guy, don’t worry about it.” From there, the lightning-fast plot bulldozes onward. On the show, this aspect of the premise gets the space it needs and deserves to explore just how thorny and troubling the idea of a (very) flawed man with godlike powers can be. It’s a genuinely new take on Ennis’s story, and the biggest step the show’s taken toward establishing an independent identity. Best of all, it retrofits the show with the kind of discernible arc that’s been so conspicuously absent: Jesse is coming to terms with his newfound responsibilities.

By striking out from the books at its outset, Preacher has taken on a burden that Game of Thrones didn’t have to face until it had four seasons and massive cultural cachet to work from. It’s a challenge that partially explains Preacher’s initial slog, though it doesn’t entirely justify it. The slow, sprawling drama is my least favorite trend in modern television, and the idea of it metastasizing from the streaming services that pioneered the concept onto cable fills me with dread. Claiming that a binge-friendly format makes week-by-week structure and cliffhanging interest-drivers less important is one thing; transplanting it to a format where all this plays out over not hours, but months is quite another. Judging by the modest drop-off in audience since the premiere, many viewers didn’t stick around long enough to see the wind-up pay off. Which is a shame — it may have taken a while, but Preacher is now one of the more exciting TV debuts this year.