If you have starry eyes for superheroes saving the world in spandex, Preacher would like to pray for your soul.
AMC's bracing new drama throws a bucket of cold water in the face of slick comic adaptations for TV and film. Based on Garth Ennis's 1995 comic series of the same name, Preacher finds heroes in the most unlikely places, usually as they’re beating the shit out of some scumbag and flipping each other off.
Jesse (Dominic Cooper) is just your average hard-drinking pastor trying to turn around a neglected Texan town, when all of a sudden he gets zapped with some mysterious, enormous power from on high. Complicating matters are his volatile ex-girlfriend Tulip (Ruth Negga), who has returned to town to lure him back to his former life of crime (it's exactly that vague), and an aimless vampire (Joseph Gilgun) who keeps making unholy messes while Jesse's trying to create some kind of community.
Just like its source material, AMC's Preacher is dirty, incredibly violent, and impressed with itself. But unlike plenty of so-called adaptations of books or comics for television, Preacher makes several shrewd choices that establish it as more than just a recreation of a comic. As produced by Sam Catlin (Breaking Bad), Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg, this Preacher is an entity all its own.
Here are the three most important things to know about Preacher going in.
1) If you didn't read the comics, you'll be confused — which is mostly the point
Preacher isn’t worried about not having time to tell its story. Whereas the comic regularly shifts between flashbacks, the present, and, most notably, those with the answers to Jesse's questions about his new powers, the TV show only visits the past occasionally, preferring to stick to the immediate aftershocks of the here and now. Any useful information about what's happening to Jesse comes out in rare spurts, keeping the mystery — and even Preacher's overarching premise — firmly locked away.
For comics readers, this approach might feel akin to something like Game of Thrones. Preacher doesn't just take its sweet time unspooling its story; it relishes it. Key details about the basic premise — which the comics offer up almost immediately — are still nowhere to be found even four episodes into the season. Instead of letting us in on what's happening to Jesse, the show consciously opts to keep viewers in the dark, revealing little more than what Jesse himself discovers.
In other areas, however, the TV series moves at a much faster clip than the comics. Tulip and Cassidy in particular both get lengthy introduction sequences that tell you far more about them than the comics let on for some time, and both characters are series standouts.
Once you get past the stories of the main trio, however, everything gets a little murky. By the end of episode four, Preacher's overall lack of explanation and character backstories makes for several storylines that seemingly crisscross no reason. Having read even just some of the comic will make those storylines more accessible, but if you're coming in cold without any context, it's hard to understand them at all.
But so much of Preacher is so confident that I'm eager to see how all the threads might come together in the end. In the meantime, the show just has to keep an eye on newcomers who might not be patient enough to stick around as its stories unfold leisurely.
2) The entire cast is solid, but as Tulip, Ruth Negga is on another level
Everyone in Preacher's cast throws themselves enthusiastically into the material they're given. Cooper (History Boys, Captain America) is long overdue for a role like that of Jesse, whose confusion and determination surrounding his new powers make for one of the show’s only linear stories.
And as Emily, a no-bullshit new character who has a soft spot for Jesse and absolutely nothing else, Lucy Griffiths features a fantastic blunt dryness that balances out much of the show's filthy ramblings. Meanwhile, Gilgun's grinning Cassidy is always fun to watch, whether you can understand his rollicking accent or not.
But it's Ruth Negga's Tulip who runs away with the first four episodes — which is an impressive feat, considering how completely boring her character is in the comics.
For most of Preacher's first volume, Tulip is pretty much exists only to whine at Jesse and try to make him remember that he used to feel something like love once. Even though she develops more in the comics going forward, as Joanna Robinson says at Vanity Fair, it's significant that in the first four episodes of the TV series, Tulip's storyline still hinges on Jesse's without the character depending on him for a personality.
In Negga's self-assured hands, Tulip is impetuous, furious, and brilliantly mean. She runs on resentment and hellfire, and every second she's onscreen crackles with smirking electricity. As in the comics, she's head over heels for Jesse, but she's angry about it, and the result is hypnotizing. She can deliver a stirring monologue about love with a wink, constantly keeping you guessing whether she actually means it or whether she's full of shit.
As she tells a couple of gaping kids not long after crashing into their ramshackle house:
If you're lucky enough to fall in love you have to be even stronger. Fight like a lion to keep it alive. So that on the day your love is weak enough or selfish enough or freaking stupid enough to run away you have the strength to track him down and eat him alive.
Oh, also: Tulip delivers this passionate speech while literally building herself a bazooka.
Giving Tulip so much to do — and trusting Negga to bring her roaring to life — speaks highly of Preacher's instincts and bodes well for the future.
3) Preacher doesn't just recreate the comics. It's a real adaptation that takes advantage of its new medium.
Before screening Preacher's pilot at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in January, AMC handed out copies of the source comic's first volume. I was excited to dive in, but halfway through reading it, I worried that AMC had made a huge mistake.
While Ennis's hyperviolent wisecracking might've impressed me when I was younger — I regret to inform you that my favorite movie in high school was Boondock Saints — here it left me cold. The characters are imaginative but flat, intended to impress readers by sole virtue of their ability to swear a blue streak. Every page attempts to shock the eyeballs out of your sockets; back to back, all those explosive moments just smudge together to become white noise.
But AMC’s Preacher makes a couple of telling decisions that hint at good things ahead. For one, it makes Jesse a little less inscrutable, making it easier to care as he careens around Annville trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with him. For another, it shades in its female characters beyond "whiny" (Tulip) and ... well, nonexistent in the case of Emily, a brand new character created for the TV series.
The TV series also manages to keep the grime of the comics without shoving it all up in our faces to make sure we get the gist. Part of its restraint is no doubt thanks to being on cable versus the unlimited possibilities of a comic book page, but it's also just a smart editorial decision.
In the show's first four episodes, the most twisted, gruesome sequences are strategically sporadic, the better to make them land with more impact. Preacher's protagonists might not be as smooth as some of the heroes trapezing their way across movie theaters now, but they're scrappy as hell, and their fight scenes are fittingly some of the most purely fun I've seen in a long time.
Even the look of the show is immediately specific, translating Steve Dillon's art in the original comics into wide shots of dusty Texan desert, crumbling dive bars, and the seemingly banal corners of Annville that become witnesses to truly extraordinary — and often very bloody — events.
It'd be easy for Preacher to operate as a cut-and-dried adaptation; the comic is vibrant, with an incredibly specific tone and complicated backstory. But in reimagining it for television, AMC dug a little deeper, and came up with something more satisfying and complex.
Preacher airs Sundays on AMC at 10 pm EST. The first episode is currently available to watch on AMC's website.