When I first watched Preacher's pilot, a single thought kept rattling around my skull: It's crazy that this show exists. It's based on a comic book that used gore, blasphemy, and pornography as its primary colors. Every previous attempt to adapt the comic has failed, including several separate film versions that struggled to attract financial backers. Even a proposed HBO series was deemed "too dark and too violent and too controversial."
And yet, Preacher is here. The show was snatched up by AMC, the network that started a gold rush on adult-oriented comics after the staggering success of The Walking Dead. The show will undoubtedly draw some controversy — or, at the very least, a sternly worded press release from the Church of Scientology about that exploding Tom Cruise gag — but the immediately remarkable thing about Preacher is that the comic's anarchic, biblical gore has arrived intact. If you're walking in blind, you should prepare to be shocked. And if you've read every issue of Preacher cover-to-cover — well, co-creators Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Sam Catlin have plenty of surprises for you, too.
The pilot opens with a bang, as an African preacher spits a sermon at his devoted flock. "Something is coming," he bellows. "War. The light and the darkness are at it again. But we are not afraid! We know that a deliverance will come!"
He's more correct than he realizes. From outer space, a ball of energy rushes down to Earth and blasts the priest in the chest, sending him flying across the room. As his congregants cheer this apparent miracle, he commands them to be silent. "I am the prophet! I am the chosen one!" he declares — and then he spontaneously combusts, showering churchgoers in blood. As the congregants flee, the crucifix above the door spins on its axis, settling upside down for a moment before it crashes to the ground. (This is the point at which anyone who mistakenly believed a show named Preacher would be the next Touched By an Angel will also flee.)
If you'll excuse the pun, this opening feels like a mission statement — a series declaring that its worldview will be distinctly Old Testament. That perspective certainly extends to our hero, Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), a Texas preacher whose personal demons haven't been exorcised by anything he's found in the good book.
Preacher's smartest gambit is setting this story in a place we all recognize: a world in which religion plays an ever-decreasing role in the average American life. There are rows and rows of empty pews at Jesse's All Saints' Congregation on Sunday morning. The pews that are occupied are filled with kids playing on iPads while their dads sleep off their Saturday-night hangovers. Even these few remaining parishioners are probably on their last legs; after all, the nearby megachurch just opened a Starbucks in the lobby.
It would be easy for Preacher to lob softballs at the razzle-dazzle of the megachurch movement, but the series doesn't shy away from the other big problem threatening the future of the All Saints: Jesse is a terrible preacher. He wakes up and has a stiff drink before he heads to the church. He delivers a sermon based on a lazy anecdote cribbed from an NFL football coach who died more than a decade ago — and he misplaces a page, which forces him to make up an ending. ("The answer is being humble," he riffs to his dismal congregation, which is like telling a group of drowning people that they should all just take a deep breath.)
But if Jesse lacks preaching prowess, he makes up for it in fighting prowess — a reputation that has followed him to All Saints. When a young parishioner complains that his father, Donny, has been beating his mother, he's not looking for divine intervention. He's looking for Jesse to dole out the most immediate and violent justice possible. Jesse refuses, citing a code that clearly arose from experience: "Violence makes violence makes nothing much at all."
Although Jesse has sworn off fighting, Preacher's other protagonists pick up the slack. In rapid succession, we meet Cassidy (Joe Gilgun) and Tulip (Ruth Negga), whose introductions are practically engineered to be recut into fawning YouTube tribute videos.
We first see Cassidy, a charmingly motor-mouthed Irishman, as he regales a private plane full of people with booze, drugs, and a small putting green. He's the life of the party, and when he discovers that his fellow flyers actually intend to kill him, he only gets livelier. A breathless fight sequence follows, which culminates with Cassidy sinking his fangs into the neck of the last man standing. Yes, he's a near-immortal vampire — and before leaping out of the plane, he pours a little to-go cup of blood from the champagne bottle he stuck in another victim's stomach cavity.
Tulip's introduction is somehow even more impressive. In the passenger seat of a car speeding through a Kansas cornfield, she ruthlessly beats two men, finishing off the last by shoving an ear of corn down his throat. She's in enough trouble that she knows more men will soon arrive to kill her. "Coming to kill you?" asks a bystander doubling as an audience surrogate. "Coming to try," Tulip replies. With the help of two kids, Tulip fashions a makeshift grenade launcher out of old cans and toy soldiers, then instructs the lil' tots to hide until the noises stop. When they emerge, Tulip is standing over a flaming helicopter.
Back in Texas, Jesse makes every attempt to find a nonviolent solution to his young parishioner's problem. He tells the sheriff, who doesn't care. He goes to the boy's mother and urges her to report her husband's abuse, only to get an unlikely crash course on their Texas-fried Fifty Shades of Grey–style relationship. "You don't understand. I like it," she confides. "When he hurts me, I like it."
This is the world of Preacher: Anything that seems clear-cut, as so many religions claim, turns out to be a great deal more complicated. If there is a cosmic force in this universe, it's probably the one that brings Jesse, Cassidy, and Tulip together.
We're told that Jesse and Tulip have a history. They dated in their younger days when he wasn't a preacher and she wasn't a killer. Today, their relationship is a lot more testy. And Cassidy, for his part, is a quick learner. While Jesse drowns his sorrows at a dive bar, Donny confronts him — and Jesse finally embraces his violent impulses and punches back. Cassidy happily joins the brawl, which culminates in both men being thrown into a jail cell to cool off for the night.
When Jesse wakes up, he realizes it's long past time to hang up his collar. But fate (or God, or whatever) has a grander plan. The mysterious ball of energy that blew up the African preacher hops across the planet — blowing several more preachers to pieces in the process — and hits Jesse, but he doesn't explode. He just passes out, then wakes up on Sunday morning after a thematically convenient memory-dream in which his dead dad tells him big things are coming for him.
Though All Saints is still pretty empty, most of the characters we've met over the course of the episode turn up for what Jesse intends to be his last sermon: Cassidy, Tulip, even Donny, still sullen after his beating. But just as Jesse launches into his good-bye homily, he pivots, filled with new inspiration for his mission. "I can't — I can't quit," he decides. "You deserve a good preacher, and that's what you're gonna get." He even outlines a new plan to revitalize the church: "Offer peace to the restless, avenge the innocent, cool the wrathful, welcome those who are lost, and last but not least, speak forth the word of God."
It's that last one that turns out to be the linchpin of Preacher's first episode, setting up an almost unfathomable power that will play out through the series. Jesse may not know what that ball of energy did, but we get a small taste. As he enters All Saints, Jesse dismisses an annoying congregant who won't stop complaining about his mother with a simple bit of homespun wisdom: "Be brave. Tell her the truth. Open your heart."
That's really good advice — as long as you don't take it literally. But Jesse's new power is a Monkey's Paw of sorts, underscoring the best of intentions with unforeseen and horrific consequences. Ted follows Jesse's instructions to the letter: He hops on a plane, confronts his mother at her rest home, and tells her he wants her to stop calling and criticizing him. And then he pulls out a butcher's knife, cuts out his still-beating heart, and passes it across the table as she screams.
"For all this, I am responsible," Jesse says, proudly, as the episode cuts back to Texas for the climax of his sermon. Given his newfound supernatural ability to speak with enough force that people will obey his every word, it's certainly hard to argue. The real trick will be figuring out how to use this gift without begetting more evil.
- It's already clear that Preacher will take plenty of liberties with Garth Ennis's comics — but nevertheless, I'll remind those who have read the comics to avoid spoiling anything in the comments below.
- If you don't want to know the true identities of those creepy, mysterious guys who investigate the world's spontaneously combusting preachers, don't Google the cast list.
- The episode also introduces Eugene Root, a character better known as "Arseface" in the comics. In an interview with Collider, Seth Rogen explained the decision to soften the character's appearance, which was caused by a suicide attempt: "I knew we should not try to make it look exactly how it looked in the comic, and we should take some license and try to make it something maybe a little more … palatable, I guess might be the word."
- Here's the full text of the "Five Foolish Virgins" parable from the Book of Matthew, which Jesse fails to complete in his disastrous sermon. I'd pay particular attention to the closing line: "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming."
- Rogen and Evan Goldberg's direction is full of clever little flourishes, but I particularly liked the cut from Cassidy leaping out of the plane to the sickening splat of ketchup on Jesse's dinner plate.
- From Willie Nelson's "Time of the Preacher Theme" to Johnny Cash's "The Beast in Me," the soundtrack choices in this pilot are note-perfect.
- Fans of the Preacher comics will appreciate the Ratwater Whiskey label, which serves as a none-too-subtle shout-out to a fan favorite.
- Blasphemous letter-swaps on the All Saints marquee: "OPEN YOUR ASS AND HOLES TO JESUS," "REPENT FOR HE IS CUMMING."