Most people don’t think highly (or all that much) about small towns like the fictional Annville, Texas — but underneath the overbearing expanse of the sky, and in the hearts of its Lone Star populace, a war rages. The conflict hinges upon a single question: How can we have faith in God and ourselves when the workings of the world tell us otherwise? It was a concern that fueled Vertigo’s beloved Nineties comic series Preacher, in which an Irish writer (Garth Ennis) and an English artist (Steve Dillon) tackled such Big Picture questions while mining the gap between the beauty and the sordid underbelly of American culture. And if nothing else, the executive producers behind AMC’s adaptation of this cult favorite — Sam Catlin, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg — revere the source material they’re working with.
The good news for fans is that the books’ pulpy, thematically dense, and remarkably sprawling nature is not only present and accounted for in the show’s pilot — it’s all pulled off with a righteously dark sense of humor. You can see in the show’s first opening sequence, a kitschy nod to the watch-the-skies sci-fi B movies of the 1950s. A mysterious entity that looks like a glittering comet and sounds like a crying baby rips by planets before landing on Earth. The entity then zips right into the body of an African preacher in mid-sermon; moments later, his body explodes, leaving his congregation covered in blood and gristle. Its creators know how to stage an attention-grabbing opening. They also know that ultra-violence alone, even embedded in a story that quickly pivots between a multitude of characters in settings ranging from wintry Russian landscapes to Kansas cornfields, isn’t enough to sustain a pilot, much less an entire show. Preacher is ultimately going to live or die based upon its three leads.
An unshaven man of the cloth, Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) carries himself like a noirish antihero with so many burdens he’s lost count. He can barely seem to get through Sunday mass, much less inspire his congregation. It isn’t until an epic bar fight between this pastor and the smug, abusive Donny, along with several of the good ol’ boy’s cronies, that we see him smile for the first time. It’s easy to see why: He’s in his element. This is what our titular holy man with the checkered past is good at. And after Jesse breaks Donny’s arm, leaving the bone jutting from his forearm and the man howling in pain, it’s evident that his darkness run much deeper than expected. The British-born Cooper cuts a mean figure and eventually settles into the character, if not the South Texas accent.
But it’s his costars who are the true scene stealers. There’s Jesse’s ex-girlfriend Tulip (Ruth Negga), the living embodiment of temptation who’s hoping to rekindle their relationship. Her introduction, which involves a messy hit, a moving car and a DIY bazooka, is one of the most startling TV character how-do-you-do’s in recent memory. And then there’s the newest figure in Jesse’s life, and Irish vampire named Cassidy (Joe Gilgun) who literally drops out of the sky after a fight aboard a plane goes south. He’s a jolt of unhinged charisma whether he’s draining a pilot’s blood into an empty water bottle or crash landing with his entrails pooling around him.
There are a lot of fascinating characters coloring the margins, including the kind-hearted but grotesquely disfigured Eugene Root — who’s nickname is Arseface, for reasons that are readily apparent — and DeBlanc and Fiore, two “government agents” who’re tracking that mysterious cosmic entity as it unsuccessfully tries on one host after the other. It seems to be targeting religious leaders — including, apparently, Tom Cruise, who is continuously mentioned in news footage as having spontaneously combusted.
It’s fresh off the heels of Jesse deciding to forego being a preacher that, during a dark night alone in the church, the entity enters his body and forces him onto a completely different path. He isn’t aware of the particulars, but after he wakes up three days later, he finally feels a sense of purpose. He’s also unknowingly harnessing the ability to influence others — the kind of power of persuasion that, when he tells one member of his flock to “open his heart,” causes the man to literally tear the beating organ out of his chest. Still, Jesse’s faith in himself and divinity have been renewed. And it’s about to be tested.
When, where, how and why that will happen, however, isn’t being made clear just yet. The pilot doesn’t establish who those mysterious agents are, or even the details of the entity itself. You can feel it getting a bit lost as it tries to bring the grand scope of the comic to life, especially as it bounces from location to the next; there’s a risk of several plot strands turning into nothing but visually compelling non sequiturs But the performances (especially Negga’s) are so strong, the tone feels so right, and the violence so visceral that it feels like minor concern. It also leaves us with enough questions to be interested in what comes next, mainly: When Jesse’s new abilities restore his faith? Will they bring out his potential for goodness or reveal the nature of his sins? And just how powerful is he?