There’s a line from AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire that I think about a lot when reviewing TV these days: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”
This would prove to be true of Halt itself, which started out seeming like it was about a bunch of people building an early personal computer, but soon evolved into a far more satisfying drama about the rise of the Internet and the enormous power the online world has to both bring people together and push them apart. That was mostly an accident: a creative team realizing that the original idea wasn’t working, and pivoting smartly. But we’ve seen a number of other recent dramas whose first seasons would be revealed in time to be, intentionally, about the thing that gets us to the thing, including HBO’s Westworld and another AMC drama, Preacher, which returns for its second season on Sunday at 10. (Additional episodes will air Mondays at 9, beginning the very next night.)
Preacher was created by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg from the beloved, blasphemous, but seemingly untranslatable ’90s action/horror comic by Garth Ennis and the late Steve Dillon, and the first season at times seemed determined to show why so many other filmmakers had thrown up their hands at adapting it before Rogen, Goldberg, and Breaking Bad alum Sam Catlin came along. The comic is a road trip across the American Southwest, involving crook-turned-minister Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), his hitwoman girlfriend Tulip O’Hare (Ruth Negga), and their vampire pal Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun), as they chase after a God gone fugitive, while in turn being pursued by all manner of angels and monsters — some brewed in the deepest pits of Hell, others made right here on planet Earth. The show’s first season, though, stayed frustratingly in one place, expanding a brief passage from the start of the comic where the three leads come together in the dusty Texas town of Annville, until it filled up the entire season.
The problem wasn’t that the show was deviating from Ennis and Dillon — too often, the current wave of literary and comic book adaptations stumble hardest when they prioritize fidelity to the source material over what works dramatically in this version and medium — but that the deviation wasn’t nearly interesting enough to be worth all this time and trouble. Whether it was an attempt to save money (road trips are more expensive than sticking close to home, no matter if you’re going on location or just constantly building new sets) or to better establish the characters before things got truly crazy, it didn’t really work. Jesse as an exasperated preacher running out of ways to motivate his sad flock was a particularly poor use of Cooper’s brand of boyish charisma, and the season finale concluded by blowing up the town and virtually every supporting character, in a way that simultaneously made the surviving leads seem callous and the audience feel like saps for trying to emotionally invest in the townsfolk(*).
(*) Many of Jesse’s comic book congregants die in an explosion, too, but that happens midway through the first issue, without any attempt to establish them as people worth knowing. They’re never treated as anything other than cannon fodder, and Jesse thus doesn’t look like a heel for so easily moving past their deaths. The weakest part of the new season involves Jesse and the others finding out what happened to Annville (which blew up shortly after they left town), because the show has to create the pretense that they care, even though they — and the show — are clearly much more interested in what’s happening now.
Fortunately, the first three episodes of the new season get straight to road-tripping, taking Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy from the backroads of Texas to an Indian-themed (as in Mumbai, not Apache) casino to a series of jazz clubs in New Orleans, each stop theoretically taking them closer to finding the Almighty and calling Him to account for all that’s wrong in the world, while also having them run afoul of cops, gangsters, a secret global conspiracy, and the Cowboy (Graham McTavish from Outlander), sprung from Hell at the end of last season to go after Jesse — who’s currently playing host to a half-angel, half-demon called Genesis that gives him power called the Word of God, which can make anyone do whatever he says — with guns so accurate and deadly, they can lay waste to immortals just as easily as to regular people.
Preacher is almost instantly a livelier and more satisfying show as a result of the change. Catlin and company are still mixing and matching parts of the comic like the Cowboy with their own stories and characters, but the tone is much more light-hearted, and Jesse is now an active rogue rather than a sad sack struggling through a role everybody knows he’s no good at. There were stretches in the first season where Negga’s vigorous performance as the casually homicidal Tulip (still the character most improved in translation from page to screen) was the only reason to stick around; now that Jesse has a mission, and he and Tulip and Cassidy are working together and keeping slightly fewer secrets between them, episodes feel more evenly distributed, so that when our misfit heroes split up, it can be fun to follow any of them, alone or in pairs.
The improvements elsewhere are only to the good of the parts of Preacher that were already working well. Rogen, Goldberg, and other directors like Michael Slovis (another Breaking Bad vet) have come up with an aesthetic for the fight scenes that’s half-Matrix, half-slapstick — perhaps as an homage, one new character we meet is a big fan of the Three Stooges — and where once the fight scenes were the primary draws along with Tulip, they’re now just one treat among many on this strange, disgusting ride.
To a degree, Preacher resembles Starz’s American Gods, which also adapts a beloved work by a star of the ’90s comics scene, which also arguably devoted too much of its first season to setting up the story rather than just telling it, and which shares a vibe of, “I don’t quite understand what’s happening, but it looks really cool and is played with such energy that I’m just gonna go with it.” And we’re still in such early phases of this new Preacher story that it’s hard to predict whether the show has found a new and improved quality level or is just charged up at the start of another year. (Season one was at its strongest early on, before it became clear there wasn’t enough life in Annville to sustain 10 hours.) But it feels more like, well, a TV show — one that better understands its strengths and its weaknesses, and that is actually going somewhere, narratively as well as physically, after being stuck in an uninteresting place for too long.
I think about “the thing that gets us to the thing” a lot because I’ve heard enough TV creators and executives use phrases like “We think of the whole first season as our pilot episode,” which is a dumb idea. Pilots are often bad, even for great series. They require too much heavy lifting in terms of introducing character, plot, and situation, and particularly in getting the main characters out of the situation they’re in when the pilot begins and into the one that the show will be about. Particularly tough are the ones referred to as “premise pilots,” because they first have to set up why the main character is doing what that the show is actually about, which means the show itself doesn’t really start until the next episode. Everybody in the business hates doing premise pilots, and on a few occasions (NBC’s Ed, for instance) shows have scrapped the premise pilot altogether and just started with the first real episode of the show proper. Making your entire first season into a premise pilot — “Here’s how Jesse got the Word of God… Here’s how he met Cassidy… Here’s why he’s a bad preacher… Here’s why he’s leaving town to find God” — only elongates that problem. It’s the thing that get us to the thing as slowly as is humanly possible.
The thing Preacher is now seems much more entertaining and sustainable. I just wish it had gotten us to this thing much sooner.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE: I reviewed every episode of the first season, despite my creative concerns, and my tentative plan is to do it again this year. The list of shows I cover weekly isn’t meant to be a direct reflection of the shows I think are best in television, and I often find it more interesting to write about a show that’s still figuring itself out — and may never succeed — than about one that’s consistently great in the same way every time. Like the review above says, these early episodes are more promising, but if Catlin, Rogen, and Goldberg stumble later on in the season, that will give us things to talk about, too.