AMC debuted Preacher last night, and it not only managed to pull off the comic book’s balance of the sacred and the profane, exploring the daily struggles with faith many people have while also exploding famous actors and nut shots, it did it with style. And that’s largely thanks to taking cues from the comic book while simultaneously standing on its own.
Surprisingly, the pilot is most faithful to the comic in the small details. For example, it opens with Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) fixing his church’s sign while Johnny Cash’s cover of Willie Nelson’s “Time of the Preacher” plays. The song is an important part of the comic. In fact its lyrics are among the first things readers see in the book. Garth Ennis, writer of the original comic, didn’t choose it just for the final lyrics about preaching and lessons, however. The song is about a man who discovers his wife is unfaithful, which pushes him into a violent spiral, much like Jesse finds himself wandering down in the comic. Later on in Red Headed Stranger, the Nelson album from which “Time of the Preacher” originates, it’s reprised with a crucial change in the final lyrics: “Now the lesson is over, and the killing’s begun.”
There are tons of little touches if you’re familiar with the comics beyond that. Sheriff Root’s tragic home life, Jesse’s collar tips, the design of Jesse’s church, Tulip’s taste for classic cars, and the ongoing tendency of the locals to alter church signs all come straight from the book. Cassidy, played by Joseph Gilgun, is practically lifted from the pages of the comic. The most important element they’ve kept is the death of Jesse’s father, which is more or less straight from the comic, right down to the line, “You have to be one of the good guys, because there’s way too many of the bad.”
The changes the show makes, and there are some substantial ones, are however all faithful in spirit to the comic. Some of these are a matter of degree: The show explains that Jesse’s commands are literal with a stunning gory moment, but in the comic, Jesse tells somebody offhanded to “go f*ck themselves” and, well, let’s just say it’s an even more gross, if off-panel, moment. Steve Dillon and Glenn Fabry, the interior and cover artists respectively, never depicted an African preacher exploding all over his congregation, but it wouldn’t have been out of place, considering some of the gorier chaos in the comic. The “controversy” over Pedro the Prairie Dog is new, but it reflects the ongoing theme of Ennis’ distastes for both extremes in the ’90s culture wars unfolding on talk radio at the time.
The most important element the show keeps, though, is the way Jesse and others struggle with faith. Preacher was ultimately a study in how you put your faith matters, whether it’s in a religion or in a person. The show, amid pulling a scanner on Tom Cruise and having Cassidy wipe out an entire private jet full of cultists, sticks closely to that theme. Probably the finest moment in the show is when Emily (Lucy Griffiths) discovers that her faith in Jesse hasn’t been betrayed, after all. God may not be answering prayers, but Jesse won’t give up, and that promises to make for a heck of a show.