Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A failing preacher, his gun-loving ex, and an Irish vampire walk into a church. It sounds like the set-up to a bad joke, but it’s actually the set up for AMC’s newest attempt to find a breakout hit, the same way they turned The Walking Dead into a ratings bonanza. Preacher, for those who aren’t aware, is based on the Garth Ennis/Steve Dillon comic of the same name. Make no mistake, the pilot episode makes this connection to a comic book world fairly clear, but ends up feeling uneven, partially because of the necessity to introduce the main characters and a lot of sub characters, painting the world broadly so that the smaller details can be filled in as the episodes roll past. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad first episode, just that it could have used a little more breathing room for some of the story that they tried to pack in. It’s time to journey to Annville, TX, and meet the Preacher.
The series, brought to life by producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (yes, THAT Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg) definitely carries a dark tone to its comedy, and a frenetic pace to its action. The tone for the entire series is set with the initial scene, shot in what was hopefully an intentionally cheesy sci-fi fashion, showing a presence zooming from “outer space” to earth, arriving first in Africa. Said presence invades the body of a man of faith, who declares himself the chosen one before promptly exploding, pieces showering his congregation. Yeah, it’s going to be that kind of a show, and that’s all before we even meet the main characters.
However, that initial gonzo feel can’t possibly be carried throughout the episode, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even if it does lead to the pilot episode careening about the place, a little unwieldy. That doesn’t make it bad, by a long shot. It’s just that they tried to pack so much into the first 90 minute episode, there was bound to be an uneven feel to the proceedings. Nowhere is that unevenness felt than in our main character, the Preacher himself, Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper). Jesse has returned to Annville from a past that is clearly darker than he would like to admit, and has donned the clerical collar. Problem is, he isn’t necessarily the greatest at helping his congregation. Jesse tends to fare a little better one-on-one, but even then his platitudes ring hollow in his own head. Throughout much of the episode, we’re clearly meant to empathize with Jesse, but it’s hard to do so with a man who seems so disinterested. The moments he seems the most alive and engaged are his conversation with Eugene, who is also known as Arseface due to a suicide attempt gone wrong, and his bar fight with Donnie, the husband of a woman Jesse thought was getting abused. In the conversation with Eugene, Jesse shows a deep human consideration, while also desperately trying to not look Eugene in his, um, “arseface”. With Donnie, Jesse’s past comes back to the fore, and he actually seems eager to tap back into that part of himself. Cooper fills Jesse’s shoes, but the episode tries to pack so much in that we can’t be sure if he will completely inhabit Jesse’s skin.
One of the things packed into the episode is Cassidy (Joe Gilgun), who we first meet aboard an airplane, serving the wealthy drugs, jokes, and frivolity. Cassidy finds a Bible in the ridiculously huge airplane bathroom, which proves that these guys he’s been partying with are actually trying to take him out. See, Cassidy is a vampire, which doesn’t go so well for the rich hunters flying with him. Cassidy is presented as being a fast-talker (so fast that audiences may have trouble catching all of his dialogue), and a very dangerous customer, but he’s also someone who seems to plan ahead. He “taps” the pilot of the plane to give himself a quick refresher after diving out of the plane itself, but is forced to rely on a little bovine sustenance, due to the severity of his injuries, and the fact that his bottle shattered upon landing. Again, though, vampire, he’s going to be okay. Cassidy is a character that could lead to a wealth of story, and his interactions with Jesse should prove interesting through the course of the series, as long as it never feels forced. Thankfully, the pilot doesn’t try and throw too much of Cassidy at us right away, and his interactions with Jesse are relegated to the bar before the brawl breaks out, and the prison cell afterwards. The two men now have a connection, which will only help as things move forward. Gilgun brings a manic energy to Cassidy, and the show will have to make sure to keep that energy from boiling over too much.
You’d think that delivering us as much of Jesse’s story as they did, and filtering Cassidy through, would have been a big enough undertaking for a first episode. You’d be wrong, because this particular trinity really does need to be completed, and that completion falls to Tulip O’Hare (Ruth Negga). Tulip is Jesse’s ex, and our first real meeting with her is watching a quick flash to the recent past, as she is fighting for her life, and a map, while in the backseat of a car careening through a cornfield in Kansas. It is another impressive action piece, and it’s followed up with Tulip, post crash and victory, getting a couple of children to help her in creating a bazooka out of some moonshine, cans, and tape. If Jesse is too taciturn for his own good, and Cassidy is too manic, then Tulip seems to fill the void between the two, at least in this episode. Yes, she’s got a strong drive, and is looking to hook up with Jesse again to complete the “job to end all jobs”, but she’s also clearly inventive and calculating. It helps that Negga brings the best performance of the opening episode to Tulip’s character, and it would have been enjoyable watching the story focus on Tulip even more than Jesse, truth be told.
But that’s not all. We get to meet, somewhat briefly, a number of the other residents of Annville, including the Sheriff, the Schenck family, Emily and her family, the mayor, and Ted, who is a bit of a sadsack, and has a much bigger impact than we could have expected. The town feels alive, and their respect for Jesse is palpable, even if it seems unearned and somewhat misguided. Oh, and that presence mentioned earlier? The one that caused a preacher in Africa to explode? That’s filtered throughout the episode as well, as we learn about the effect it’s had in various places around the world. A Satanic church in Russia experienced the same thing that the African church did, and a news story lets us know that Scientology lost Tom Cruise in a similar fashion. This should clearly put us ill at ease when the presence approaches Jesse near the end of the episode, even though we all know that he has to be safe, if we’re going to get a full series. And safe he is, although imbued with a new power to get people to follow his words. It seems that he was the one that the presence was looking for, and he’s going to have to learn how to adapt to his new gift, or else there will be a path of people who, much like poor Ted, take his instructions a little too seriously and “open their heart” in the worst way.
All told, Preacher could very well be the next big hit for AMC, and now that they’ve established some of the key elements for their world, they can slow down a bit on the exposition that created such an uneven feel, and find a pace that is sustainable. However, even if they don’t succeed right away, there’s enough packed in the world of Preacher to keep the audience connected for at least the short run. It’s darkly humorous, with good action, and a surprising amount of real heart and empathy. The second episode won’t be airing until June, so there’s another few opportunities to catch the pilot, and it might just surprise you if you decide to dive in.