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Preacher is getting buried under all its possibilities

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Three episodes in, and I’m starting to worry.

“The Possibilities” isn’t a huge nose-dive in quality. The tone is more or less intact, the acting’s still good, and some individual scenes work quite nicely on their own. But what seemed novel and maybe even innovative in those first two episodes is starting to look more and more like a creative team that has no idea how to tell a story. The “let’s keep throwing stuff at the screen” approach isn’t bad for a hook, and it fits the gonzo nature of the subject matter. But this isn’t a sustainable approach. The longer this goes on without a core narrative, the closer we get to tedious incoherency, where shocking events no longer matter because there’s no context to make them surprising.

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The core is supposed to be Jesse’s newfound power. That’s the hook, that’s what the pilot set up, and “The Possibilities” does spend some time showing Jesse struggle to understand the nature of his powers, showing off to Cassidy before ultimately deciding to stick to the path of righteousness for a little while longer (after a second run in with Donny, about which more in a moment). We see the results of his “Open your eyes” from last week, which aren’t much but still manage to impress the comatose girl’s mother. It’s not as though the show is letting this stuff slide.

Only, there’s not a lot of urgency right now, is there? Sure, there are the weird guys who Cassidy killed last week—guys who turn out to be sent from Heaven, which probably explains how they managed to come back this week. They tell Cassidy they want the power inside Jesse, which explains the routine with the coffee can (and the chainsaw), and the idea that Heaven is somehow involved in this mess is important to the developing mythology. And yet none of this feels all that important. Good storytelling requires a certain amount of focus, and that’s missing from this.

It’s not bad, exactly, it’s just—okay, look, the story of Tulip trying to bring Jesse with her to kill a man who betrayed them named Carlos? That’s a lot to take in all at once. That’s a whole other world getting thrown at us in just a few minutes; and while it’s not the most complicated collection of ideas (the episode manages to convey the basics in just a minute or two of flashback), there’s a danger of whiplash as we go from “Jesse Custer, Man With The Voice” to “Jesse and Tulip, Outlaws Looking For Revenge.”

The stories have nothing whatsover to do with each other, apart from Jesse’s involvement in both, and the result feels like two different movies mashed into one another. And not in a crazy fun way like, say, From Dusk Till Dawn. It’s hard to give a damn about who Carlos is and what Tulip wants to do to him when we barely have a sense of Jesse and Tulip’s relationship. Seeing Jesse holding a gun in a flashback, having presumably just killed a security guard, was a shock, and a useful indication of just how bad he was in that past he keeps trying to let go of. But that’s all we get. Too much of what’s going on is based off of back-story we know next to nothing about, which makes it hard to care about.

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Then there are the monologues. Really well-acted monologues that bring the episode to a screeching halt. There’s no reason for Sheriff Root to tell a story about a family’s horrible day at the amusement park. It tells us nothing specifically about him, and apart from the awful irony of it, there’s not much value in the anecdote itself. W. Earl Brown sells the hell out of it, but he’s a good actor, and solid delivery can’t save the moment from being anything more than a curiosity.

Tulip’s speech to the cop at least has a purpose; she’s trying to win him over so she won’t have to shoot him (which seems a bit extreme, but what the hell). But while Ruth Negga is clearly up to the task, the scene is still painfully contrived, and the character development it offers—Tulip is desperate to get Jesse back on the “right” track—isn’t new information, or particularly useful. She’s just doing the same thing she’s always done, and if it sounds churlish to complain of repetition after only three episodes, it’s frustrating to see the writers already struggling to come up with something new for her to do.

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The closest we get to an arc here is Donny feeling put upon and angry, and deciding to go after Jesse for some revenge. Which doesn’t go too well for him. Jesse gets another chance to use the Voice, almost murders Donny, and then decides, nope, he’s going to be a good guy again. It’s a moral conflict that isn’t anywhere near as interesting as the writers seem to think it is (namely because Jesse goes back and forth so fast it’s hard to take any decision he makes that seriously; he comes across as more wishy-washy than troubled), and suffers more from the fact that Donny is—well, who the hell is Donny, anyway? We know he beats his wife, but apparently his wife enjoys it, which makes things complicated. He also threatened to beat up his son, although we’ve never actually seen him do that. So is he an abusive asshole, or a pitiable loser, or both? On a show with stronger characterization, this ambiguity could be compelling; as is, it just seems sloppy.

“The Possibilities” concerns me because it suggests that the people running the show have no clear idea of how to tell a good story. They aren’t inept, and the enthusiasm for the material is at least enough to keep me invested for the rest of the season, but it’s frustrating to see what should be a straightforward enough hook get so thoroughly lost. There’s nothing wrong with flights of fancy or side trips or occasional digressions, but they need an anchor to hold them in place. The show needs to be about something, and right now, there’s still far too much flailing for me to be able to recommend it without reservation. Last week seemed to pull things together a bit, but this week did too much and too little all at once. To steal a phrase, when everything’s gonzo, nothing is.

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Stray observations

  • I completely misread the scene with two guys from Heaven and the sheriff last week; wasn’t a flashback. I’d argue that it wasn’t a well-handled shock—it was too abrupt, and jump from “corpses in a trunk” to “they look exactly the same as before” didn’t connect clearly enough to convey what had happen. But I could just be inept.
  • So now we have menacing bad guys in Houston, too.
  • Cassidy becoming a lazy handyman at the church is something the show could use more of; it gives a sense of progression to his life in the town, even if it did happen really quickly.
  • “All right, you’re like boring the shit out of me right now, so let’s talk about my stuff.” Ah, Tulip.
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