Recently, I watched the press screeners for the first four episodes of Preacher, AMC’s new comics adaptation about a small-town Texas preacher who obtains a mysterious power.
Due to confusion on my part, I ended up watching the fourth and third episodes in reverse order. And while I did eventually realize my mistake, it took until the last 10 minutes of episode four to figure it out.
No, I wasn’t entirely sure how certain characters had ended up in certain places, and there were plenty of scenes that left me wondering where the story was headed.
But that’s just the thing — even the episodes of Preacher I had watched prior to that point operated less as coherent stories and more as collections of scenes that hinted at bigger things to come. Those individual scenes were often wildly entertaining, but they didn’t connect to any sort of central plot. They were just individual moments, stitched together only because they all share the title Preacher and the audience’s faith that they’ll be clued in eventually.
In short, every single scene of Preacher feels like the teaser for a new episode of television. And the approach is working. Critical reviews have been kind, and the show’s ratings have been solid, if not spectacular.
Shows made out of "big moments" are becoming more and more common
Preacher has certain advantages over other shows when it comes to this "every scene a teaser" strategy. For one, it’s based on a hugely influential, much-loved comic book series (though it’s a fairly loose adaptation when compared to something like the early days of Game of Thrones). For another, it features three terrific actors in the main roles in Dominic Cooper, Ruth Negga, and Joseph Gilgun. And since finding the right cast is often half the battle on TV, that gives Preacher a big leg up.
But the series often feels like the culmination of a recent movement in TV storytelling, where shows are concerned less with individual episodes, or even scenes, and more with big moments that will spur chatter on social media and generate buzz around virtual water coolers. (This "big moment" strategy is a close cousin of TV's recent overreliance on death as a plot point.)
In an era when there are so many TV shows competing for attention, big moments provide a way to cut through the clutter, because they offer obvious discussion topics and can be easily GIFed. You can trace this operating principle to the grandfather of the moment-based storytelling movement, American Horror Story, which debuted in 2011. That series often makes no sense on a macro level, but it doesn’t really have to. It’s having too much fun on the micro level.
The thing about Preacher is that it feels like it’s headed somewhere. Not only does every scene feature a moment worth talking about, it also offers the suggestion of where the story might go next, even if it doesn’t actually embark in that direction. Hence the feeling of the series being a long set of teasers, a grab bag of scenes designed to kick off the story of a new episode.
But all of those suggestions, when connected, don’t really equal a TV show so much as they equal the hint of one. And that’s maybe fine for an episode or two, but we're three episodes into this thing (and I've seen four), and it’s still treating everything it presents as a mystery, as one part of a vast tapestry that we simply lack the distance to see.
And while, again, that can be fun in an individual scene or moment, it’s maddening when you start trying to fit all the pieces together. A friend of mine calls this "decompression," a term borrowed from comic books, where stories are often slowed down to allow the artists and writers to focus on single moments or dramatic beats, often in panels that highlight, say, a man’s eye narrowing as he stares at something.
Preacher can get away with this because its moments of decompression are often a lot of fun — the raucous fight involving a chainsaw that proved to be a highlight of episode two comes to mind (see, I can do the "buzzing about big moments" thing, too!) — but after four episodes, I couldn’t possibly tell you what Preacher is even about.
I can tell you it's based on a comic series. I can tell you who the main characters are. And I can tell you it’s about a small-town preacher. But the idea of where its story is going is impossible to articulate without reading the plot summary of the comics on Wikipedia (which I’ve done — I'm looking forward to what’s ahead).
Alas, simply knowing the comics are there as a road map isn’t really enough. At some point, Preacher needs to feel like it’s not juggling a bunch of different act ones and isn't sure how to move on to act two. The episodic foundation of television can be a straitjacket that promotes formula, but at least it insists that stories get told. The moment-based structure can end up feeling like all candy, all the time.