We gave it a B
The first season of AMC’s Preacher gave us sublime introductions to strong characters played by great actors. We met Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), a bad man trying to break good by saving the withered soul of sun-beaten Annville, Texas, the sweaty seat of a devilish meat baron’s empire. Just as Jesse was about to give up on faith, some otherworldly strangeness lit him up like a bong hit from Heaven. It left with him a holy tongue, the power to command others with his words. A blessing from God to bolster his flagging belief? Nah. Just the abominable offspring of an illicit angel-demon hook-up, a heavenly host seeking a mortal one. Holy f—, indeed.
We met Jesse’s former partner in crime and love, Tulip (Ruth Negga), hard-boiled yet frayed, furious with vengeance for happiness stolen by betrayal and tragedy. Her entrance came via an exhilarating action sequence in which she fought off an assassin while careening through a cornfield in a car, then blew up her pursuers with a homemade tin can bazooka. Another inspired set piece gave us Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun), a bats— bananas Irish vampire. He dropped into the story by falling from the sky after fighting off a fundamentalist hit squad bent on staking him. He went splat in godforsaken Annville, then put himself together again like an unholy Humpty Dumpty and set about searching for drugs, booze, and blood, because, you know, bats— bananas Irish vampire.
But high-impact introductions were all Preacher really had to offer an audience in season 1. We got splattered with an abundance of characters and subplots, world-building and weirdness, outrageousness and irreverence in service of a timeless theological complaint – Oh, God, where are thou? — but these 10 super-sized, over-stuffed episodes never quite duplicated Cassidy’s magic trick of cohering into a marvelous whole. Tulip and Cassidy spent most of the season spinning their wheels, waiting around for Jesse to figure out stuff so they could advance in their arcs and all move forward together into whatever stories the show really wanted to tell us. Their experience was ours. It was surely tougher on those of us who’ve read the comics by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. We knew the stuff Jesse needed to figure out – that his power didn’t come from God; that God, in fact, had abandoned Heaven for parts unknown – and what those stories are. Perhaps it worked better for those who didn’t know.
Preacher was presented as an act of inspired adaptation by creators Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. In interviews, the producers — fans of the comic since their teens — have said they initially considered an uber-faithful translation, but were talked out of it by Ennis himself: The writer was convinced that a TV series would exhaust the plot of the comic’s 75 issues in less than two seasons.
Their solution was to forge a faithful-in-spirit artistic response to the book, an original story that appropriated elements from various storylines. But will this continue in season 2? TBD. The finale ended where the comic’s first issue begins, perhaps much to the relief of fanboys who wanted a franchise that emulated Ennis/Dillon’s episodic, road trip structure. In retrospect, season 1 looks like a prologue to an adaptation that’s about to begin in earnest.
But the irony of Preacher season 1 was that it stumbled out of the gate in the opposite way that the comic book did. The first issue was too dense and static and relied on coincidence and exposition to set up premise and people. It quickly settled into a visceral narrative of incredible power, though that all-in-a-rush, en medias res start set the series up for a reliance on flashbacks to flesh out characters. Rogen, Goldberg, and showrunner Sam Catlin, a veteran of Breaking Bad, opted for a more kinetic and visual approach from the outset. Their bigger gamble was a slower development of the saga’s core conflicts and themes — treating them as mysteries to be discovered, dramatizing them instead of ‘splaining them. As a fan of the comic, I found the show’s conception of Jesse to be an admirable innovation. Instead of launching him fully formed, as the incarnation of a pissed-off complaint with God, the producers started Jesse from a place of flailing, fuzzy faith and moved to a place of righteous, focused resentment. (He also seemed to move from mild emasculation to confident machismo, which Tulip had to put in check with a sucker-punch in the finale. It suggested season 2 might be more interested in the comic’s interest in deconstructing masculinity.)
Unfortunately, Jesse’s portrayal of faith and his arc in general wasn’t exactly assayed with the utmost integrity. I don’t think the writers or Cooper found a way to make credible Jesse’s conflicted paradox of angel and devil, believer and apostate, lover of God and lover to Tulip. I suspect he’ll do better now that Jesse is organized completely and cleanly around the romantic, crusading anti-hero of the comic.
On the other hand, Negga and Gilgun were consistently compelling and credible, even as their characters became held hostage by Jesse’s arc. Tulip in particular came on like gangbusters and the driver of her own story. But ultimately, she became dependent upon Jesse for advancement, and her function in the season was to play the ministering girlfriend, facilitating her love interest’s enlightenment, albeit with a dark twist: Instead of rehabbing a bad boy into a good boy worthy of her love, she had to wait on her good boy to revert back to his bad self. Cassidy’s chaotic neutral personality and satanic appetites provided deliciously sick spectacle, but his entire season was basically about waiting for a ride out of town. He finally got it when Jesse decided to hit the road to chase God.
Preacher’s well-cast gallery of supporting characters – gay angels Fiore (Tom Brooke) and DeBlanc (Anatol Yusef); Sheriff Hugo Root (W. Earl Brown) and his disfigured son, Eugene (Ian Colletti), a.k.a. Arseface; stressed single mom, church organist, and bookkeeper Emily (Lucy Griffiths); happily married S&Mers Donnie (Derek Wilson) and Betsy (Jamie Anne Allman); and Odin Quincannon (Jackie Earle Haley), the aforementioned meat baron – also made strong early impressions, but suffered as the season progressed and their stories became stretched or simply broke. Emily baffled me with a late season choice to feed her wannabe boyfriend, Mayor Miles (Ricky Mabe), to Cassidy. (That’s one way to break up with a boyfriend.) Perhaps — presaging Jesse’s own rebellion — she snapped from exasperation, self-loathing, a world gone crazy, or being fed-up with all things patriarchal. Or maybe I missed something?
Annville and many of its denizens were ultimately canon fodder for an apocalyptic climax played for darkly comic laughs and served the show’s worldview, but had limited emotional impact. (Of the many possible casualties, the only one I grieve even a little is Sheriff Root.) After learning that God was no longer in Heaven – that he had run away and gone MIA – they all abandoned faith and morality and surrendered to nihilism and idolatry. Odin made a surrogate for his dead daughter out of ground beef – a more poignant adaptation of Odin’s more demented love object in the comics. The warring mascots of Annville’s competing high schools finals came together… to hang themselves. The town ultimately blew up in an accidental methane explosion, a fiery judgment for their abandonment of faith. (Were we supposed to wonder if perhaps Jesse was to blame for this catastrophe? Did he petulantly use “the voice” on Annville to compel them to chase ‘Do What Thou Wilt’ satanic bliss in the face of God’s absence? Did mindlessly obeying him lead to this destruction?)
In the aftermath, a character teased in flashback bits throughout the season, a godless gunman from the Old West with a bug up his undead ass for preachers, The Saint of Killers (Graham McTavish), finally joined the main narrative. In this cynical but inspired way, Preacher — gonzo Southern Gothic for lapsed or struggling believers of all stripes, but especially Christians — posed a provocative, timeless question in memorable fashion: If there is no God, does life have meaning? It also established the personality and stakes for the series.
For all its frustrations, season 1 was always funny and always fun to watch. The irreverence often had real meaning to it – Preacher, in plot and aesthetic, is a defense of irreverence, as a protest of authority unworthy of reverence – and the spectacle was inspired. At San Diego Comic-Con, Rogen and Goldberg explained that they wanted a show that could blend all cinematic styles and serve as a laboratory to push themselves and their collaborators as visual storytellers. They were often crazy successful with their homages and ingeniousness, and you could feel the joy and glee in their play and stretching. The Saint of Killers’ looping hell. The “No Rain” montage. The hilarious conception of a fraudulent god, with his fake beard and massive hands. Of course, you could also argue that Preacher had too much fun with itself, that it contributed to the outbreak of indulgence (particularly in length of episodes) and unruly creativity that has marked summer TV, including UnREAL, Mr. Robot, and Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming Netflix series, The Get Down. As Jesse and company go searching for God, may their makers retain their inspired spirit but find the discipline and all that eluded them in season 1. B