What can you get from the pilot episode of AMC’s newest show Preacher? Trying to pass judgment on a new show whose season will stretch at least 10 hours or more from a fraction of that running time is nearly impossible. But the TV adaptation — ushered in by the questionable contributions of producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg — of artist Garth Ennis’s legendarily insane comic book series just had its premiere at SXSW, and it played like gangbusters. Still, at what point does a fired-up crowd at a Texas film festival neglect to be an adequate barometer for the tastes of a national audience? Rhetorical questions aside, Preacher attempts to be something very different from anything on TV right now, and if it pans out in certain ways beyond its first hour, it could be AMC’s newest ‘Walking Dead’-esque genre hit.
The show follows Dominic Cooper as Jesse Custer, a criminal with a shady past who returns home under mysterious circumstances to his small, middle-of-nowhere West Texas hometown to be the local cleric. Unfortunately for Custer, it doesn’t going so well, as his less-than-stellar morals make him a dubious man of the cloth for the sleepy parishioners who populate his creaky church. But before long his ex-girlfriend and fellow criminal Tulip (Ruth Negga), and an Irish demon-vampire named Cassidy (Joe Gilgun) come to town to complicate things further.
If all that isn’t enough: An enigmatic spiritual symbiote, causing the faithful all over the world to spontaneously explode while looking for a suitable host, makes its way to the preacher’s doorstep, giving him potentially divine powers so that people obey his every word.
This is the strange world of Preacher; take it or leave it. If you read the comics, it’s probably a miracle that you’re seeing anything like this on TV, but for non-readers, the show’s first hour is a bit of a head scratcher. Part of it seems to be an attempt at maintaining worldwide scope, while staying narratively anchored to the Preacher himself. It ranges wildly from character study, to brutal horror, to violent slapstick within minutes. It all doesn’t quite gel, but the pilot episode is obviously trying to juggle a lot, setting things up only to knock them down later.
When the creators introduced their screening, Rogen mentioned that he and Goldberg had been trying to adapt Preacher to any screen, both big and small, for the better part of a decade. That giddy, overstuffed idea is evident on-screen. But for now, it gets by on Cooper’s Steve McQueen-like fractured tough-guy performance and Gilgun’s Sid Vicious by way of Ireland take on Cassidy’s anarchic character.
If we’re really in a world where dark, R-rated fare is increasingly acceptable, informed pop-culture junkies should take the strange and twisted mythology of Preacher over a sophomoric, extended dick joke like Deadpool any day. If we’re in a world where AMC is now without Mad Men and Breaking Bad, the two shows that put it on the map, then Preacher is looking to fill the gap left by the latter while maintaining the core comic following of Walking Dead mega-fans. It should be no surprise then that Preacher is also produced and written by former Breaking Bad producer and writer Sam Catlin.
It’s difficult to judge a show on its first episode. Could anyone have predicted that Breaking Bad would become an amazing TV touchstone at the end of its first episode with Walt standing in his skivvies? Thankfully Preacher seems to know what it’s doing from the get go, even if some will be left wondering what they just saw. Pray that it pays off.
Preacher premieres May 22 on AMC.