“It was the time of the Preacher, in the year of ’01…”
If you were a comic book fan in the 90s, you would have been well aware of Northern Irish writer Garth Ennis’ hit series Preacher. Politically incorrect, violent, profane, irreverent, and often hilarious, it told an ongoing tale of a disillusioned Texas preacher with a shady past who becomes possessed by a strange heavenly force, and goes on an epic quest to find God, who has abandoned his creation. Along the way, he hooks up with his criminal ex-girlfriend Tulip and a hard-drinking Irish vampire named Cassidy, and together they battle weird, warped and surreal enemies in their search for the Almighty.
Given the subject matter, Preacher was always a love it or hate it sort of thing. If you were religious, chances are you saw the scatological views of confirmed atheist Ennis as grossly offensive. However, comics readers (in general) tend not to be religious, and it was a smash hit. Despite working solidly in comics for the sixteen years since it ended, it remains Ennis’ most famous work. But a live action version, first mooted in the late 90s when the series was still running, has remained in development hell ever since, mainstream studios unwilling to take on a film or TV project so gleefully profane.
But no longer! Thanks to the unlikely influence of none other than Seth Rogen, Preacher is finally on TV screens via AMC, producers of the rather popular comic book adaptation The Walking Dead, presumably hoping for another ratings cash cow. Rogen may seem an odd choice for showrunner, but actually his oeuvre tends to dwell on much the same things as Ennis’ – scatological humour, sex, bromance and a healthy disrespect for the establishment. And judging by this first instalment, he’s enough of a huge fan of the comic to know he shouldn’t actually be in it.
Instead, much like The Walking Dead, the cast is dominated by the British. Dominic Cooper looks the part as titular preacher Jesse Custer, while his real-life girlfriend Ruth Negga makes a feisty Tulip; Joseph Gilgun, a favourite of mine, is perfect casting as Cassidy. Cooper and Negga have plenty of experience at playing American, and produce creditable Texas accents. But Gilgun, whose earlier role in Misfits makes him a good choice for Cassidy, does seem to struggle somewhat with the required Irish accent – let’s hope Ruth Negga, who’s lived in Limerick since she was seven, can bring him up to speed.
TV shows based on comics can be tricky – for every Smallville, there’s a Constantine (based on another comic Ennis served time on). It’s crucial to get that opening episode right. Thankfully, this one does. It’s not slavishly faithful to the comic (see the movie of Watchmen for why that’s a bad idea), but catches its themes, and its essence, perfectly from the moment a power-imbued African priest explodes in front of his horrified congregation.
Much like Walking Dead, this plays with the expectations of the original comic readers, not actually showing us Jesse himself until about five minutes in. Instead, we get a prologue which looks (and sounds) suspiciously like the opening sequence of the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as the mysterious heavenly force descends on Earth from space, in search of a suitable vessel. This becomes a running theme in the ep before Jesse even encounters it, as various religious hosts are tried then discarded when they explode (including, hilariously, Tom Cruise).
While that’s going on, the ep takes time to establish its main cast with panache. Jesse’s a hard-drinking preacher in a nowhere Texas town, with a shady criminal past; we see him grappling with parishioners ranging from the boringly dull to the brutally violent, all of whom drag themselves to his church on Sunday while he stares from the pulpit in resignation. Tulip gets a Tarantino-esque introduction with a high octane fight in a driverless Chevy ploughing through a Kansas cornfield, after which she enlists the help of two farm waifs to build a bazooka and bring down a helicopter. And Cassidy starts as he will presumably go on – snorting coke and drinking whisky on a private plane that turns out to be full of religious fanatics who want to kill him.
The action is directed with aplomb by Rogen himself, along with frequent collaborator Evan Goldberg. But crucially, the character beats are all done well too, the ep establishing Jesse and Tulips Bonnie and Clyde-style past and showing us the beginnings of the epic Jesse/Cassidy bromance. We even get an early introduction to the pitiful/tragicomic/sympathetic character who will become known as the legendary ‘Arseface’.
AMC, as a basic cable network, will presumably have to dial down the near-constant use of the word “fuck” (perhaps with Cassidy, “feck” would be acceptable?). But again like Walking Dead, they haven’t stinted on the violence. Even before his possession, Jesse breaks a violent parishioner’s arm in the same wince-making fashion as Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, while a blackly comic moment shows us the effect on the unfortunate Cassidy of jumping out of a plane 30,000 feet up without a parachute (he got better). But the moment that made me think they really knew the right tone was when an unfortunate parishioner took Jesse’s ‘Word of God’ advice to “open his heart” to his mother just a bit too literally…
This is a very promising start, and the show’s been picked up for a ten episode first season already. We’re already seeing signs of it diverting from the comic; there’s an early mention of the Quincannon Meats firm, which isn’t encountered till much later (and many hundreds of miles away) in the comics. It looks as though, for this season at least, it will be more firmly set in the town of Annville rather than the cross-USA road trip that began almost immediately in the comic. But I’ve no problem with that, the town’s inhabitants are already a well-drawn and interesting set of characters. If it keeps this level of pace, style and irreverence, I really hope the ratings are every bit as good as AMC wants, and we get more of it.