Review: ‘Preacher’ makes a colorful, violent splash in its series premiere

05.22.16 1 year ago 28 Comments

Welcome to Preacher, boys and girls. I published a review of the early episodes last week, and I have specific thoughts on the premiere coming up just as soon as I want you to feel like you smell…

“Jesus, what kind of preacher are you?” -Cassidy

AMC screened the Preacher pilot for critics back at the January press tour. Critic conversations after a mass screening are always fun, but this one was especially interested, because there was a clear divide in the room between those who knew the comics and those who didn't, which can be more or less summed up like this:

Comics reader critic: “That was almost nothing like the comic, but I think I liked it?”

Non-reader critic: “I think I liked it, but I have no idea what the hell I just saw.”

Though I belong to the former group, my goal is to treat Preacher like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead – which means no talking in the comments about things from the books that have yet to be mentioned on screen, or that are wildly different. (Depending on time and interest, I may down the road consider doing separate posts for readers and non-readers.) So I'm not going to dive deep on all the ways Rogen, Goldberg, and Catlin have tweaked Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's ideas, or invented entirely new characters and stories. But at this very early stage of the series, I'm going to be fascinated to read reactions from readers and non-readers alike make of this thing, which is all over the map in locale and genre and tone, which takes major deviations from the comics (these early episodes feel almost like a prequel to the first major story arc) yet left critics in that early screening who didn't know what the entity was that entered Jesse Custer, or how poor Eugene Root's face ended up looking that way, dumbsquizzled.

Yet even though the pilot explains very little about what's happening, there's a confidence to the visual style and tone from the opening shot, where we see the words “OUTER SPACE” in all caps, and a glimpse of the solar system made to look as cheap and early '60s filmstrip as possible. This isn't a show apologizing for the fact that it's not a mega-budget summer movie; it's one that's leaning into its more modest resources as part of its aesthetic, as we see later during Tulip's misadventures in Kansas. The green screen as the car is plowing through the cornfield looks fake as hell, but because the actual fight choreography inside the car is so good and energetic, it doesn't much matter. And depriving us of seeing Tulip launch her homemade bazooka at the helicopter actually works to the sequence's advantage, because we get to imagine it just like the 10-year-old girl who stares worshipfully after Tulip, knowing that her perspective on life has been forever changed by her bold new role model.

Tulip's introduction is definitely the pilot's biggest triumph, but Cassidy gets a pretty spiffy introduction as well, killing a bunch of vampire hunters aboard a private jet, pouring himself a pint of blood from one of his victims, and jumping out the door without a parachute because he knows he'll survive the landing. That the bottle and the umbrella both get smashed to bits on impact also makes clear that, while Cassidy may be fun at parties and great in a brawl, he rarely thinks things through, even if a poor cow has to suffer for it.

As for our eponymous hero, his introduction is a bit more low-key, by design, because the Reverend Jesse Custer is in a less dynamic place of his life from his own choosing. We get a glimpse of the man he used to be when he gives Donnie the bully a grisly compound fracture and easily defeats all of Donnie's buddies, but for whatever reason, he's trying to be a simple clergyman in the town where he grew up, and where his daddy once stood behind that pulpit, before (for reasons we'll have to learn later) Jesse watched him get shot in the head. In the elder Reverend Custer's dying moments, we hear him tell Jesse that he has to be a good guy, because “there's way too many of the bad,” and based on some of what we see, and what we hear from both Tulip and Sheriff Root, Jesse grew up to be a bad guy, and is now trying – and failing – to be a good one.

That the mysterious cosmic entity from the solar system opening first explodes several religious leaders around the globe is played on one level for macabre laughs – one of its victims, after all, is Scientology's favorite son, Tom Cruise – but it also serves as an interesting set-up for its more successful merger with Jesse. Clearly, the thing (which sounds a bit like a crying baby when it enters All Saints) is looking for a specific kind of person, of the clerical persuasion, but something about the other preachers (and Tom Cruise) was too lacking to properly contain it, whereas the complicated, tough, morally-grey individual that is Jesse Custer is able to not only deploy its ability to make people do whatever he says(*), but to stay alive afterwards. In this Goldilocks and the Three Bears portion of the story, Jesse Custer is just right.

(*) Though developed from very different comic books, there's some similarity between Jesse's power and Kilgrave's on Jessica Jones, including how poor Ted is unable to stop himself from taking Jesse's instructions literally about opening his heart to his awful mother. 

But if Jesse's not confident yet – and has no idea what he's now capable of – the show around him very much is. Nearly every character gets introduced in a vivid way that makes clear who they are and what they are about, like Sheriff Root creeping into the window of Jesse's pickup to complain about the disintegration of modern society. Jesse's visit to Root's disfigured son Eugene gets a horror movie-style build-up with the camera angles and music, which befits the disgusting state of Eugene's face (a triumph of makeup) but not the sweet, sad nature of his disposition. Even a less exciting character like Jesse's assistant at the church, single mom Emily, gets pretty well sketched out over the course of the premiere, building up to the moment in the mini-van when her exasperation with man-child Jesse leads her to smash her actual kids' tablet as a way to vent her feelings.

Rogen, Goldberg, and Catlin are playing a long game here, and that means they can risk doing a premiere episode that throws viewers into the deep end, trusting that the energy of the whole thing will carry the audience through the many gaps they've left in the narrative at this early stage.

As a book reader, I have the advantage of being able to fill in many of those gaps with my knowledge of what's coming, but that comes with the distraction of noticing the many changes they've made to the source material. I'm okay with those changes; other readers may not be. So, again, I can't wait to see how everyone reacts to this, whether they know the comics well or not. But for me, this was one hell of a start.

Some other thoughts:

* The revelation of what is really going on with Donnie and his wife is a nice touch. Donnie's still a bully and a jerk, but making him a wife-beater on top of everything else pushes him into a very familiar, overdone stereotype. Here, it's more complicated than that, and also fits into larger themes of the series about how little we can know about what the people around us do and are capable of. Donnie largely gets what's coming to him when Jesse forces him to make that high-pitched sound, but it's not a black-and-white situation, because Jesse's not a black-and-white hero.

* So far, the vampire rules for Cassidy suggest he can be out in the daytime so long as he avoids direct sunlight. Sitting in the shade, or away from a brightly-lit window, is fine, but if a part of his body feels the sun, it goes aflame.

* There's a subtle running gag about DeBlanc and Fiore, the mysterious strangers who are investigating the explosive incidents at churches around the globe (played by Anatol Yusef and Tom Brooke), where at each place they go, they dress in the most stereotypical, dated fashion for that region: safari explorer gear in Africa, fur earflap hats in Russia, and full Western businessman duds for Annville. Whoever they are and wherever they're from, they're trying way too hard to fit in. And like to eat teabags.

* Among the music on the soundtrack: Willie Nelson's “Time of the Preacher” over our first glimpse of Jesse, Carly Simon's “You're So Vain” as Tulip drives through the cornfield, Johnny Cash's version of “The Beast In Me” as Jesse visits Quincannon Meat & Power (an interesting combination of business models), and “Voodoo Doll” by Son of Dave at the end.

* AMC is giving this show an unconventional launch schedule. It debuted tonight to use the high-rated Fear the Walking Dead as a lead-in, but will be off next week due to the Memorial Day holiday (there will be a repeat, followed by the premiere of Talking Preacher), then will air its second episode on Sunday, June 5 in its regular 9 p.m. timeslot.

Keeping in mind once again that we are not going to talk about the comics, what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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