Preacher the comic book was badass. If you were a teenager when it came out—and, hey, not to narrow it down too much, but if you were a straight white male teenager growing up in a small town, like someone who shall remain nameless—it seemed like something not just special but explosive; something so cool that you weren’t even sure you were supposed to be reading it. Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon created a universe of drunken prophets, dick-headed bad-guys, killer girlfriends, and Irish vampires, and framed them all in a gleefully blasphemous take down of God, religion, and basic bullshit. You read it, and you wondered why someone hadn’t burned it yet.

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I have no idea how it holds up now. If I had to guess, I’d say not so great; stuff that seemed badass when I was a teenager is often (though not always) horribly embarrassing to me as an adult. Besides, the more distance I get from Garth Ennis, the more his style tends to grate on me. I’d probably still have some fun with those books though, because however smug the tone got, the core premise was strong, and the three lead characters were terrific. It’s hard to completely fuck up Jesse Custer, Tulip, and Cassidy, no matter how slack the plotting gets. You just want to see them hanging out.

The good news, then: the first episode of Preacher doesn’t fuck up Jesse, Tulip, or Cassidy. Tulip (Ruth Negga) and Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun) are, in fact, pretty goddamn fantastic, with Negga taking an early lead in the “Holy shit, can every scene just be about her?” sweepstakes. (Gilgun is excellent too, but his version of Cassidy is the Platonic ideal of the concept “Irish vampire,” whereas Negga is given a chance to do something slightly unexpected. I mean, she MacGyvers a bazooka, for fuck’s sake.) Jesse (Dominic Cooper) is harder to immediately love, but that seems to be by design. Cooper is troubled and depressed for most of the hour, and while he’s convincing, those emotions tend to get buried in the middle of a lot of gunplay, exploding dudes, and cosmic curiosities.

More good news: the pilot is fun. It’s crazy ambitious, and doesn’t always deliver on that ambition—it also struggles in trying to introduce everyone and set up the premise, and I’m still not sure exactly what kind of show it wants to be, but there’s promise here, and when things are working, it’s a blast to watch. The difficulties come up when it tries to switch from “batshit delightful” to “meaningful whatsit.” There’s no reason pulp can’t be sincere—hell, great pulp is always sincere on some level. But this first episode can’t settle on a tone, and the result is an episode that’s rougher than it needs to be.

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As mentioned, it’s been a while since I reread the comics, but the basic premise is more or less the same. A mysterious force flung down from the heavens (“OUTER SPACE,” which I guess gives them room to make this all about aliens if they want to) inhabits Jesse Custer’s body and gives him the power to make people do exactly what he tells them too. His ex-girlfriend Tulip and new friend Cassidy are in town when the power hits, and, given that the episode ends with two mysterious figures walking up towards Jesse’s church (having spent the episode hunting the “force” as it leaps from body to body), I expect that calamity and action will soon result.

Various characters from the comic pop up along the way. We meet Sheriff Root (W. Earl Brown), who has a catatonic wife and a son, Eugene (Ian Colletti) with a massively fucked up face. But here’s where things get interesting, because Root isn’t exactly the way I remember him. In the comic, he’s an unsympathetic hardass, and while there’s definitely an element of that here, it’s not all he is. These reviews aren’t going to be a series of “so this is different, and this is different, and so on” recaps, partly because I don’t remember the books well enough to pull that off, and partly because that would be fucking boring. But the humanization of Root matters because it speaks to one of the pilot’s big strengths and weaknesses. It’s trying to find a way to, if not soften Garth Ennis, than at least make his work less caustically misanthropic.

That’s a noble goal, but a difficult one, which is probably why of the three leads, Jesse comes off the weakest. It takes a long time for the Power to hit him, and before it does, we get a lot of scenes of him being a sad bastard moping around Anvil, Texas, having flashbacks of his dad getting shot, and trying to connect with his flock. He’s terrible at it, and he’s a lousy preacher—the first sermon he delivers is a mess of wandering sentences and unspoken apologies. When he tries to help a family with an abusive dad, he finds out the wife enjoys the abuse. Then Dad comes for revenge, and we see Jesse being competent and on his game for maybe the only time in the entire episode—kicking ass in a bar fight.

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It’s a fun scene, like all the fight scenes in the episode are, but it makes for a messy thematic situation. The problem with trying to show somebody failing to help people is that, unless failing leads to punching, it doesn’t make for the most dynamic television, especially when there’s a lot of crazy noise surrounding it. We don’t want to see Jesse being mopey and conflicted, we want to see him kicking ass alongside his friends. But at the same time, the show is clearly committed to make the people Jesse’s trying to help more than just jokes (which most of them were in the comic). Emily (Lucy Griffiths), the organist at the church who clearly has a thing for the preacher, is likeable enough that you almost feel bad knowing Jesse isn’t going to stick around forever. And Jesse’s scene with Eugene is probably the closest that the episode’s more serious material comes to sticking the landing. The character in the comic is one of Ennis’s lovable freaks, a joke who you’re supposed to be okay with laughing at because deep down he’s a good kid, and that translates here into something moderately compelling. The show makes a small joke out of him, but also allows him to be one of the sweetest, nicest people we meet. Jesse treats him well, which makes Jesse more likable, and they’re both trying to figure out what happened to God; in that moment, it’s possible to believe the question actually matters.

Not that this show should ever be some kind of serious theosophical debate. Going by the pilot, things work best when the pressure is more about immediate events than deeper concerns. Which is why Jesse’s position comes closest to making sense at the very end. We’ve seen the Power possessing various people throughout the episode—a preacher in Africa and one in Russia, Tom Cruise at a Scientology conference—and each one of them exploding in turn, for reasons which, while not immediately clear, seem fairly suggestive. Whatever this power is, a one-sided true believer can’t handle it. A man of God or a man of Xenu isn’t enough. Jesse, who wants to be good but is better at being bad, is a little bit of both.

After the Power finds him, but before he realizes what he can do, Jesse tells Ted, a nebbish who’s been bothering him the whole episode about his mother, to go tell Mom the truth, and “Open your heart to her.” Only, he does this with his new ability, and the result is half good, half awful. Ted flies to Florida, and tells his mother the truth. He does so confidently and kindly, and for a second, you can see him actually being a better man. Then he cuts his heart out of his chest.

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With great power comes great responsibility is an old line, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it put to use quite so brutally. Jesse wants to do good, but over and over again, we see that doing good is never as simple as you want it to be. If the show sticks to that, and throws in the occasional homemade bazooka, we might be onto something here. Especially if Cassidy keeps drinking and Tulip keeps blowing shit up.

Stray observations

  • I’m a soft touch for any show that uses a Willie Nelson song.
  • Jesse describing a scene from Friday Night Lights in his opening sermon is a great touch; it is so painfully lame.
  • ‘But you’re hanging there like a shirt on a hook.”
  • About the abuse storyline: I’m trying to work out in my mind what it means that Mom was into being beaten. Is she lying? Or is she facilitating abuse—nothing wrong with consensual S&M, but Dad’s later threatens to beat the shit out of his son for talking to Jesse. On the one hand, Jesse looks like a fool for interfering; but on the other, he saved the kid a beating, at least for a while.
  • Betsy, the abusive asshole’s wife, works at Quincannon Meat & Power. Am I wrong in thinking Quincannon didn’t show up in the comics till much later?
  • “You gotta be one of the good guys, you know why?” “Because there’s way too many of the bad.” Way to fuck up your son, Jesse’s dad.

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