We live in a glorious period, one in which television options are abundant. During this era of peak television, there are too many great shows for any one person to be able to watch, and so we pick and choose the four or five or six shows we watch every week. More shows are being watched, but those shows have fewer viewers.
It’s put the internet in a difficult position, however, because there are only a few shows with enough viewers to generate big conversations. For all the choices, in many respects we’ve reverted to a kind of monoculture, thanks to the phenomenon in which the internet crowds around only a few shows to the detriment of all others. Right now, those two shows are The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. With the exception of the first season of True Detective and the NFL, nothing else since Breaking Bad comes close to those two shows in terms of the number of viewers, and the ability to attract an audience of that scale on the internet.
That’s going to change soon. When Preacher debuts later this month on AMC, it’s finally going to break The Walking Dead/Game of Thrones logjam, because Preacher has everything the internet loves in a show: Great and abundant source material with which we can make comparisons; mysteries we can tease out and explore; questions about faith and spirituality; an abundance of characters; compelling and original storylines; myriad influences from Westerns to Tarantino to the Bible; and sex, booze, blood and bullets.
It’s also wicked fun. If there is a God — and Preacher certainly suggests there is — this show is going to be huge.
Adapted from Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s stylish comic-book series, which ran from 1995 to 2000, the show comes from co-creators Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who have been trying to make Preacher since the day they submitted Superbad to a studio. They also help set the humorous tone for the series. It’s action-heavy and ultraviolent, but it’s also very, very funny. For those who’ve seen Green Hornet and have concerns about what Seth Rogen might do to the classic source material, there’s no need to worry: Sam Catlin — writer and producer and major presence through all five seasons of Breaking Bad — is running the show, and it’s apparent that he is bringing the thoughtfulness and attention to detail of the Breaking Bad writers room into Preacher. Like Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad, it’s the kind of show that spends more time writing and mapping out the series than it does actually shooting it. It was a new and unfamiliar process for Goldberg and Rogen, but Catlin helped them transition from feature film to small-screen storytelling.
A ton of thought has also been put into how to adapt the series to television. It’s a comic that’s passed through several hands over the years, and no one had been able to crack it until now. It’s too big for a two-hour movie, and too expensive for a television show. Rogen, Goldberg, and Catlin solved the latter problem by finding a way to set the entire story — or at least, the first season — in Texas, while maintaining the spirit of the comics and hitting all the major touchstones (if a set piece comic fans are expecting doesn’t appear in the pilot, showrunner Sam Catlin cautions viewers to be patient).
Dominic Cooper (the Marvel universe’s Howard Stark) plays Jesse Custer, a dark figure with a mysterious past who returns to his hometown of Annville, Texas, and settles uncomfortably into the position of the local preacher previously held by his father. He’s not very good at it. He’s a hard-drinking man with a tendency to try to solve problems with violence rather than the gospel. His faith is also shaken in the pilot episode, until he is touched by God (whose touch is not gentle).
Meanwhile, his gun-toting, criminal ex-girlfriend, Tulip O’Hare (Ruth Negga, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), re-enters his life and brings with her not only the violence of Custer’s past, but some of the people. As Custer’s sidekick and delightful comic relief is the Irish vampire, Cassidy, who has the potential to become a huge, scene-stealing star, if the actor who plays him, Joseph Gilgun can keep the performance grounded. There’s also Arseface (Ian Colletti), an outcast kid with a mouth that looks like an anus, and though he’s mostly incoherent, Colletti somehow brings the character to life in a way in which we feel empathy for him, but never pity.
Cooper is perfectly cast in the role of Custer, an ideal character with whom to revolve these other characters around. Negga and Gilgun are tremendous, both physically gifted enough to handle the quick action sequences, talented enough to bring their characters some depth, and brilliant with the one-liners.
This is how we meet Tulip:
There are also a few supernatural elements in the pilot, including a comet seeking out the right religious leader to possess with its superpowers (it rejects Tom Cruise, hilariously). That comet eventually finds Custer, and after a long slumber, he wakes with the power to command the obedience of anyone who hears him (with inadvertently gruesome results in the pilot). However, the outlandish mythical elements are anchored by realistic characters and small-town Texas-setting with big, dusty horizons that feel like something out of Friday Night Lights (the pilot episode even features a high-school football game). The way the townspeople look to Jesse for guidance and support also calls to mind Coach Taylor, and like Kyle Chandler’s character, Jesse is a man of few words, but those words carry weight (in this case, the weight of a powerful supernatural entity).
Preacher is the best pilot to come along in years. It’s sharply written, brilliantly cast, intense, bloody and often very funny. The characters are instantly likable, people with whom we want to spend the next seven or eight seasons. It’s hard to believe it took this long for Preacher to be adapted for the screen, but it’s a blessing that it finally fell into the hands of Goldberg, Rogen and Catlin, creators with a passion for the source material and the respect and intelligence to do it justice. This is the show that television and the internet has been waiting a long time for: a smart and funny drama with a built-in cult following and considerable mass appeal.
Preacher premieres on AMC on Sunday, May 22 at 10 p.m. ET.