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The Deliriously Fun and Maddeningly Inconsistent ‘Preacher’ Ends How It Began

AMC’s bizarre comic book adaptation is entering its final season without ever having hit its stride

AMC/Ringer illustration

Given the deluge of viewing options available in the ever-expanding era of Peak TV—the latest estimates had nearly 500 original scripted series released in 2018—it’s easy to get caught up in hyperbole. But even as someone whose actual job it is to watch a lot of this stuff, the show that’s elicited the most “I’ve never seen anything like this on television” and/or “What the fuck just happened?” responses from me is the modestly viewed AMC series Preacher.

For instance: In the penultimate episode of its third season, the excessively overweight Allfather—leader of a clandestine organization called the Grail tasked with protecting the bloodline of Jesus Christ, and who has swallowed a vial containing a small portion of our preacher Jesse Custer’s soul—is attempting to transfer a divine power to Christ’s latest descendant, Humperdoo. (In retaining a pure bloodline through inbreeding, Jesus’s descendants are increasingly deformed and mentally impaired; Humperdoo mostly just masturbates and says his own name.) The power—called Genesis and residing within Jesse—allows the preacher to make anyone do what he says; it will, however, destroy anyone who isn’t worthy of it. So after a quick tussle, Jesse manages to transfer Genesis to the Allfather, instead of Humperdoo. Within a matter of seconds, the Allfather explodes.

I haven’t even addressed the vial of Jesse’s soul found protruding from the Allfather’s anus, post-explosion. Or the fact that Jesse fights the Grail’s second-in-command, Herr Starr, for the vial on top of the various organs, at one point attempting to choke his adversary with the Allfather’s intestines—to say nothing of an ongoing subplot involving Adolf Hitler escaping hell and working at a sandwich shop while rallying some neo-Nazis to his cause. Preacher is, above all, sacrilegious and divinely weird.

Based on the acclaimed comic series of the same name from Garth Ennis, Preacher seemed perfectly calibrated to bring attention to itself, Peak TV be damned. The show’s brain trust included self-professed superfan Seth Rogen, and the last thing you could say about the material is that it’s uninteresting and formulaic. But as its fourth and final season drops on AMC—the first two episodes aired back-to-back on Sunday night—the rollout of the final season feels antithetical to the series’ bombastic nature. How is a show as outwardly noisy and obscene as Preacher going so quietly into the night?

If you got sucked into the tailwind of people freaking out over HBO’s Succession last year—apologies to my extended family—a familiar refrain was that you’d just need to push through the first few episodes before the show became extremely good. (This tweet is a perfect representation of the Succession viewing experience.) But even asking TV consumers to wade through a handful of mediocre-to-good episodes to get to the thrilling back half of a season is an increasingly tricky ask. As the TV critic Alan Sepinwall noted in a column from 2017, Peak TV has tested the patience of viewers, who can move on to countless other shows that appeal to their interests in lieu of waiting for something to get good—especially if they don’t know whether something ever will.

Sepinwall briefly touches on Preacher in his piece, and with good reason. While the comic wastes no time in sending Jesse, his vampire bestie Cassidy, and his on-again, off-again girlfriend Tulip on a road trip to search for God—who has apparently abandoned his flock—the show’s first season grounded the action in Jesse’s hometown of Annville, Texas. Annville was home to its own quirky cast of characters, and the intent of staying in Annville seemed like a commendable attempt to explain how life in a decaying town has slowly eroded Jesse’s faith. But in the season finale, Annville is eradicated in a methane explosion—the show doesn’t like taking things too seriously, so it feels apt that the town was destroyed by an overflowing supply of literal cow farts. In turn, it rendered any emotional investment you had in characters who weren’t the core trio meaningless.

Diverging from source material isn’t always a bad thing, but in the case of Preacher, the first season felt more like an exhaustive prologue than a substantive dive into the lurid and cynical universe of the comics. The second season begins with a worthy corrective. Jesse, Cassidy, and Tulip hit the road, where they encounter an emissary from hell with exploding tracer shells, while Jesse also fights a guy jamming to Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” in a sequence stylized to look like a continuous take. But the majority of the season ultimately roots itself in New Orleans, where God is purportedly hanging out and enjoying the local jazz. It’s a colorful backdrop, but the issue with Preacher writ large—and something that extended into the third season, which replaces New Orleans with a creepy plantation in Louisiana called Angelville where Jesse had his turbulent upbringing—is that it works best when it’s bouncing Jesse, Cassidy, and Tulip off of new settings at a steady pace. Like the comic, the series works best as a road-trip adventure narrative—and for whatever reason, the show’s been unwilling to embrace that spirit.

As Preacher enters the home stretch, the show has settled into this familiar rhythm; the first three episodes of Season 4 are set in Masada in the Middle East, home to the Grail’s headquarters. Once again, there are some worthy morsels of absurdity in the fourth season, like a fight sequence in the third episode pitting Jesse against costumed inhabitants from a house of sexual debauchery that echoes the hallway scene from Oldboy. Three seasons in, the Preacher viewing experience is still entrenched in what The Ringer’s Micah Peters aptly called a “half-remembered fever dream.” It’s made a habit of creating something profoundly strange, spitefully nihilistic, and gloriously gory almost seem perfunctory, while occasionally jolting you out of that daze with a lurid and undeniably unique set piece. (You probably wouldn’t rewatch any episode of Preacher, but you would revisit five juicier minutes on YouTube a couple of times a year.)

There’s little incentive, then, to consider a late-stage Preacher binge in lieu of other TV options, especially with such a mind-numbing variety out there. At the same time, anyone who’s committed to three seasons—taking the redundant beats with the occasionally glorious, gory excesses of, say, choking someone with intestines—knows exactly what they’re in for. And part of that is the uncertainty of knowing what type of wild shit they’re going to cook up next.

A show that’s literally killed Satan and that makes God an uncaring asshole with a penchant for wearing dog costumes could do just about anything—especially now that God’s aligned himself with the Grail against Jesse and hinted at an impending apocalypse. (Jesse has a vision of this apocalypse in the season premiere, and naturally, the inciting event is an explosion that looks a lot like a huge penis.) While series can sometimes claim to possess world-ending stakes, the one thing you can say about Preacher is that it wouldn’t hesitate to actually go through with it. For the devoted few who’ve sat through its highs and lows, you might as well enjoy the ride into eternal damnation.