Tuesday, May 17, 2016
Review: AMC's Preacher series premiere
Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher is one of those tricky properties to properly adapt. Remain too faithful and you run the risk of creating a laughably absurd, tonally catastrophic mess. Venture too far away from the source material and you may alienate the very fan base you wish to please. Thankfully, producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and showrunner Sam Catlin have hit that rare sweet spot, and though the pilot episode of AMC’s Preacher does recalibrate some of Ennis and Dillon’s basic plotting and setups, the essential spirit and characters of the graphic novel remain delightfully the same.
Dominic Cooper plays Jesse Custer, your average dark and mysterious type with a past, who reluctantly returns to his small (fictional) hometown of Annville, Texas to take his father’s place as a preacher. When we meet Jesse he is a man on the verge of losing faith (not that he had much to begin with), and has been dispassionately fulfilling his christly duties every Sunday for some time. There’s a trade-off in adapting comic books for the screen in that you lose some of the visual freedom but gain more space for nuance and eloquence, and Cooper’s version of Jesse is a little less hard and a little less jaded, but no less magnetic and complex.
But before we even get to Jesse, the first episode opens by confirming Rogen & Co’s commitment to some of the more fantastical elements of Ennis and Dillon’s source material. The Preacher pilot begins in space, as a mysterious comet that sounds suspiciously like a crying baby howls through the cosmos and lands in Africa, where it briefly possesses the body of a preacher before abandoning the vessel and giving us an explosive introduction to the darkly comedic and visceral world of Preacher.
Joseph Gilgun’s Cassidy and Ruth Negga’s Tulip receive similarly raucous introductions once we get to know the titular player and his surroundings a bit better. While Jesse sets about trying to help a young boy’s seemingly battered mother, Cassidy is fighting off vampire hunters in a frenetic and bloody airplane sequence that properly establishes the hard-drinking and nihilistic Irish vamp, capped off with a perfectly cool shade-tip.
Meanwhile, a quick digression to the not-so-distant past introduces Tulip as a gun-toting, self-employed career criminal whose latest venture has taken a messy turn and landed her in a stranger’s backyard with a pair of unsupervised kids. On the page, Tulip was already a great character with depth and complexity, an unwavering and self-sufficient woman whose intensity of will is matched only by her charm. Rogen & Co. pull off many miraculous feats in the transition from page to screen, and Negga’s portrayal of Tulip is no exception. The former Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. star brings incredible nuance and charisma to the role, delivering a fully-dimensional Tulip who defies the reductive label of “strong female character” with ease.
The same goes for Cooper and Gilgun as Jesse and Cassidy, respectively, each grounding their characters in the sort of relatable realism directors and producers often espouse when adapting from the vibrant world of comic books and superheroes.
Some of the more outlandish elements still remain, of course, but the supernatural and mythical is anchored by these three leads who are greatly supported by secondary cast members, like Deadwood’s W. Earl Brown as the local sheriff, a gruff good ol’ boy hardened by caring for his wife and son — the latter of whom will be of particular interest to fans of the comic books. Yes, Arseface is still intact (well…you know…), introduced here by his given name of Eugene, a troubled but unfailingly earnest teenager who worries that there are some acts so unforgivable that not even God would absolve you of your sin. Jesse recognizes his own quiet crisis of faith in Eugene’s assertion that God is no longer listening to his prayers, offering a surprisingly poignant intro for one of Ennis and Dillon’s more fantastical creations.
If you were to examine just one element from this series as proof of a successful adaptation, Eugene is it. In the comics, he’s often the crude butt of the joke (pun inescapable), but in his very first scene in the first episode of Preacher Eugene is instantly established as an empathetic character; your first instinct isn’t to mock him, but to find a way to give the kid a hug. And yet you don’t necessarily feel pity for Eugene. You just kind of like him, despite the fact that some yet-to-be-revealed accident has left his face scarred and puckered to give his mouth the appearance of an anus.
It’s stuff like this, and exploding humans, and vampire brawls on an airplane some thousands of feet above the ground that affirm the show’s commitment to retaining the wilder elements of the source material, and for as crazy as some of it can be, the transition is made smoother by sharp writing, direction and acting — all showcasing an appropriate amount of sensitivity to that fine line between delightfully visceral and absurdly cartoonish.
You’ve probably heard one of your comic book-loving friends try to make their hobby sound more sophisticated by insisting, “I read graphic novels, not comics.” If there were such a distinction to be made — on a scale marked by shades of gray — Preacher would be the graphic novel of comic book adaptations. And if the pilot is any indication, Rogen, Goldberg and Catlin have succeeded in achieving something quite rare, with a dark comedic, visceral tone and a charming cast so pitch-perfect you’ll be happy it took so long for Preacher to finally make it to the small screen.