Jesse Custer has a mission. The titular hero of AMC’s Preacher has found himself quite literally searching for God — moving from jazz bar to jazz bar in New Orleans, casing the city in search of the missing Almighty. The quest is the sick joke at the heart of the late-’90s comic series on which the show is based, and also a source of compelling momentum and purpose for Jesse, who spent much of the first season conspicuously lacking both. Now, in the second season, Jesse has turned from soul-searching about his purpose in life to literal searching for the divine, resulting in a show that’s radically different — and radically improved. Preacher has pivoted from neo-Western farce to road-trip buddy comedy, with a prevailing mood that’s shifted accordingly from static to dynamic.
Television shows make changes and introduce new elements all the time, mostly because the format is a wood chipper for plot that requires episode-, season-, and series-long arcs to sustain itself. But Preacher’s reinvention is less about storytelling and more about fixing conspicuous problems in the first season, whose flashy set pieces failed to distract from a mostly languid and aimless larger narrative. Reinventing a series is a tall order in 2017, when the cacophony of competing shows makes it difficult for even a de facto reboot to get the attention it deserves. There’s also the issue of how Preacher announced its intentions to start from scratch: the shockingly flippant death of virtually every character except the main protagonists, which called into question the viewer-show contract that keeps audiences tuning in week after week. If Preacher was going to ask us to invest in people only to render that investment moot, why should we trust it in the future?
To be fair, viewers’ trust had already been thoroughly tested by a sluggish and zany-for-zany’s-sake debut. Custer, played by a brooding Dominic Cooper, was possessed by a half-demon, half-angel spirit named Genesis in the first episode, giving him the power to compel anyone within earshot to obey his vocal commands. Then Preacher overcorrected for its source material’s frenetic pace, parking itself in the dust for the next nine episodes without giving Jesse an antagonist to match his newfound powers. (Local meat magnate Odin Quincannon added some local color, but as a mere mortal never amounted to a serious threat.) There were gestures toward a bigger, better version of Preacher that landed closer to the comics’ gleeful blasphemy: a heaven-sent assassin known simply as the Cowboy; a rash decision that forces Jesse to finally reckon with his ability’s destructive capacity. But overall, Preacher made for a curiously inert viewing experience for a show that also featured vampires, angels, and the force of nature that is Academy Award–nominee Ruth Negga.
The finale was simultaneously a cause for hope and Preacher’s most dispiriting move yet. The creators’ — Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Breaking Bad alum Sam Catlin — solution to the small-town problem was to wipe Annville from the face of the earth, freeing Jesse, his on-again-off-again girlfriend Tulip (Negga), and his suspiciously nocturnal best friend Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun) to hit the road and never look back. The gesture tipped the show’s carefully sharpened black comedy into straight-up spiteful nihilism; there’s no better way to say “nothing matters” than by demonstrating in the harshest terms possible that the majority of what we’d seen so far didn’t matter. It also constituted a massive risk, even for a show that was in dire need of some shake-ups. Preacher was moving forward without the place, people, and iconography it had used to define itself, and asking the audience to step into the unknown along with it.
Fortunately, that gamble has paid handsome dividends in Season 2. Removing the Annville ensemble has effectively stripped the cast down to its most essential elements: the Jesse-Tulip-Cassidy trio, a volatile lust triangle with live-wire chemistry and a shared penchant for violence as a means to an end. Combined with the Cowboy’s introduction, a physically absent God gives Jesse not one, but two goals to work toward. One is positive: find God and force him to answer for leaving his creation in the lurch. And one is negative: keep as far away from the Cowboy, revealed to be both immune to Genesis and known as the Saint of Killers, as possible.
Preacher’s appeal still primarily lies in its smirking tone, which leads Tulip to use a human intestine to siphon gas or Jesse’s colleague to lock a teenage parishioner in a cage to wean her off of her Instagram dependency. In its second season, however, that tone is wedded to a structure that gives Preacher a rationale beyond “It’s cool to watch.” Like all shows that define themselves by their cynicism, Preacher has an uneasy relationship with straightfaced emotion, constantly wrestling with the temptation to undercut what little it allows to slip through. “Mumbai Sky Tower,” the second episode, makes a strong case for the uncomfortable, uncool work of asking your audience to feel something, as it follows the plight of the angel Fiore (Tom Brooke), unable to die and trapped in unending purgatory at a roadside casino. There’s a flashy shootout involving the Saint of Killers and a vending machine gag, but there’s also a legitimately moving moment when Fiore figures out how to free himself from the loop he’s stuck in — and uses his dying wish to keep the Saint on Jesse’s path.
And then, in the very next episode, Preacher asks us to laugh at two young people’s horrific disfigurement. Turns out Tracy Loach (Gianna LePera), the comatose sweetheart from last season, tried to kill herself over a cheating boyfriend, and Eugene (Ian Colletti), the dupe she manipulated into being her shoulder to cry on, saw that his unrequited crush shot herself in the head and attempted to follow suit. “What a bitch/moron,” it turns out, is not nearly as affecting a takeaway as “what a tragic confrontation with the despair of immortality,” even if it’s easier to pull off in conjunction with so much stylized gore.
Preacher’s contempt for everyone outside its central clique can be off-putting at best and grotesque at worst. Which is why it’s such a relief that this season focuses on Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy by giving them something to concentrate their bountiful energies on. Second-season revamps have been surprisingly common in an era when there’s more pressure than ever for a show to break through the noise. Luckily, viewers have been willing to wait; ratings thus far have been on par with last season’s averages. Preacher’s new incarnation may not fully vindicate what came before it, but the change at least retroactively frames the first season as working its way toward a worthwhile destination. It fits that the show about a wandering cleric needed a tiny dose of God, if only for Jesse to chase after.