There are serious benefits to TV becoming a more widely adored, serialized storytelling medium. But with that comes equal drawback. Viewers will loyally tune in each week to see how the story continues to unfold, which is good news for the fans and the networks footing the bill. It also gives rise to the opportunity for those networks to create difficult stories that wouldn’t otherwise be a safe bet on television, especially in the case of adapting popular comic-book source material.
It’s why The Walking Dead is such a big hit on AMC. And while being ambitious is something a network loves to aspire to, the newfound freedom in creating notoriously difficult material might be too much of a good thing. AMC’s new show Preacher is incredibly ambitious, but just three episodes in, its puzzling plot is beginning to show why challenging shows risk confusing ambiguity with brilliance.
Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s cult classic graphic novel had been deemed notoriously unfilmable before Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, and former Breaking Bad writer Sam Catlin, brought it to fruition at AMC. Its notoriety stems from the massive scope of its source material, the size of which made it seemingly impossible to adapt. It’s also a notable project because, as is evident in the show the trio has created, it isn’t an easy story to explain.
The show follows a former criminal, played by Dominic Cooper, who wrestles with his identity by hiding out in a dusty Texas town, working as a local preacher. The preacher, Jesse Custer, is suddenly possessed by an ethereal power, and angels begin to hunt him. He also befriends a foul-mouthed Irish vampire. All in all, it’s a lot for mainstream audiences to accept.
Critics calling the source material “unfilmable” begs the comparison to other infamously “unfilmable” texts and their adaptations, like David Cronenberg’s version of William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch or Terry Gilliam’s wild adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Add a dash of the sun-soaked nihilistic Texas justice à la the Coen brothers’s version of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men and one begins to understand the task ahead of Preacher.
But these early episodes of Preacher feel jarring, and sometimes confusing, perhaps because the show refuses to stick to one genre. It could be categorized as a religious, supernatural horror-tinged, crime-dramedy-western, but instead it’s intentionally and frustratingly undefined. The genre juggling makes the unusual pairing of the comedic Goldberg and Rogen with the stinging Walter White-laden sensibilities of Catlin become a bit more clear. How else would you make someone jumping out of an airplane and having the gruesome gravitational outcome be so funny, in the pilot episode, no less? That discordant tone doesn’t explain why the show has almost reveled in its opacity so far.
This is not to say that a series has a mandate to show its hand immediately. A show should at least set up enough ground rules early on and be informative enough for the audience to understand what they’re getting themselves into to not string the them along. By the end of the first episode of Breaking Bad, as Walter White stood there in his tighty-whities outside a broken down mobile meth lab pointing a gun towards the audience and his destiny, you had a sense where the story would go. The same with The Walking Dead: a father must carry his son and a group of survivors through a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland.
We can only take so many vague references to Jesse’s shady past with tagalong outlaw Tulip (Ruth Negga), or non-sequitur scenes of actor Jackie Earle Haley’s Odin Quincannon, or why two men (or angels?) are sent from heaven to capture Jesse’s power, or what an Irish vampire named Cassidy (Joe Gilgun) means for all this chaos. Supposedly big important scenes end up feeling like empty dramatic crutches. Preacher doesn’t seem to know what it is, so it forces the audience to read the comics before watching the show. That’s a strange place to put your audience, only three episodes in.
Judging a show only three episodes in isn’t right, and Preacher will undoubtedly reveal itself over the season’s ten episodes, as Jesse explores what his power actually is. Cooper, and the totally committed performances by Negga and Gilgun, are prime reasons to keep watching too. But the show should start giving us some answers very soon.
In the closing moments of the third episode, entitled “The Possibilities,” Jesse reads a verse from First Corinthians at the funeral of Ted, the churchgoer who literally pulled out his own heart by listening to Jesse’s godly advice. “Listen, I tell you a mystery,” he reads. “We will not all sleep, but will all be changed in a flash, in the twinkling of the night, at the last trumpet.” Hopefully Preacher starts playing that trumpet very soon.