Preacher Took Too Long to Get Sufficiently Weird

Dominic Cooper as Jesse Custer. Photo: Lewis Jacobs/Sony Pictures Television/AMC

Hey, remember Preacher? In mid-May, it felt like the summer’s most notable new series. AMC was betting big on it, executing an aggressive marketing rollout and putting show creators Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Sam Catlin in front of reporters at every turn. The network had reason to be optimistic: Like their perennial cash cow The Walking Dead, Preacher was a high-concept thriller based on a cult comic-book series of the same name. Hell, they even announced a Talking Preacher after-show before the first episode aired, taking a die-hard fan base and a significant amount of buzz as faits accomplis.

And then … well, and then what? It never really caught on, did it? It’s not because Preacher was a disaster. The show — which concluded its first season Sunday night and is already renewed for a second — was never exactly bad. There were performances worth praising, the visuals were memorable, there were delightfully odd little twists and turns, and the dialogue only produced occasional groans. But boy, talk about a show that never figured out what it wanted to be. It tried to be both a Southern Gothic drama and a balls-out experiment in insanity, but instead of steadily walking a line between the two, it just lurched from one mode to another. In its season finale, it finally got weird enough to stand out, but the nine episodes leading up to it were frustratingly stilted.

There was reason to hope that the whole season would be odd and boundary-pushing. As Rogen told me, he and Goldberg were attracted to the original comic’s penchant for stuff like extreme genital mutilation and morbidly obese cult leaders. The basic premise of the original and the adaptation opens up a world of supernatural possibilities: a disgruntled reverend merges with an entity born of an angel and a demon and gains the ability to make people do whatever he tells them to, then encounters an undead cowboy who can’t be destroyed. In the comic, that setup kicks off a globetrotting road trip filled with apocalyptic conspiracy, tar-black comedy, and heaping helpings of ultraviolence.

Of course, producing something like that on basic cable would have been a tall order. Instead, Rogen, Goldberg, and Catlin decided to make a kind of spiritual prequel to the action of the comic. The titular preacher, Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), gets his mystic ability, but opts to stick around in his hometown, accompanied by his lethal ex-girlfriend Tulip (Ruth Negga) and bawdy new friend Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun), who happens to be a vampire. That choice cut down on location costs, but also on narrative stakes. For the vast majority of the season, we were bogged down in boilerplate small-town intrigue and predictable spiritual crises.

We saw Jesse use his power to bring newfound faith to his flock, and right away, it became woefully obvious where it was all leading: He’d coerce people to believe, become foolish in his pride, then something would make him realize true belief has to be chosen, not forced. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened, though we had to wait for the better part of six 40-odd-minute episodes to see that all play out. We saw Jesse’s criminal past come back to haunt him, with Tulip tempting him to return to it, and we knew he’d eventually choose not to go back. Check. We saw mean-spirited city father Odin Quincannon (Jackie Earle Haley, who never figured out an approach other than a growling sneer) try to take the church’s land and knew he’d never win the day. Check and check.

But the primary arc, one obvious to any fan of the comic and likely apparent to newcomers as well, was one that was only really addressed last night: Jesse and his cohort would ultimately realize they had to depart the town in order to seek answers about Jesse’s power and its implications for an upended cosmic order. Once you realized that’s where this was all headed, it was hard to get very involved in the meandering bits of parochial politics. If we’re gonna leave this place soon, why get acquainted with the non-leads?

Well, one reason would have been if those non-leads were compellingly idiosyncratic oddities, a parade of sympathetic and not-so-sympathetic freaks to marvel at. And occasionally, that’s what they turned into. There was a sublime montage in the finale during which we saw the whole town going crazy after it’s revealed to them that God has gone missing (more on that in a moment), and in wordless vignettes, we had a vision of what might have been. While a choral version of Blind Melon’s “No Rain” played, a bunch of schoolkids stabbed a man to death on a bus, Haley’s character cradled a pile of meat shoved into the shape of a child, a teen took a selfie with a girl whose mother was smothering her to death, and a woman in a ball-gag struggled to shut off some machinery in an effort to keep the town from exploding. It was as stomach-churning as it was moving. But it was gone all too soon: The S&M lady fails and the whole burg explodes. Good-bye to all that.

The episode also paid off the season’s most interesting through-line, which was a chain of hints that all was not well in heaven. Two British-accented angels in boots and ten-gallon hats (Anatol Yusef and Tom Brooke) came to town to snag Jesse’s entity, and their combination of cryptically foreboding dialogue and surprisingly low-tech mystical accoutrements — a beaten-up coffee can, a music box, and an antique device that acted as a phone to heaven — showed the creators’ attention to unsettling visual details. When another resident of the Great Beyond showed up in the phone’s video-conferencing function to speak to the church while dressed like the Old Testament God, then admitted he was being forced to do it against his will in some kind of extradimensional ransom-video situation, it was amusing, but also an impressive example of how inventive the show can be.

But all of that was crammed into the tail end of Preacher’s proceedings. All that kept one going until then was some wonderful acting from a select few performers. Ruth Negga brought a combination of style and menace that’s rare on television (she also had the finale’s best laugh line: She said God would likely turn out to be a “beardy white guy” and when Jesse replied that we don’t know if he’ll be white, she shot back, “Well he better be, or else he'll have even more explaining to do!”). Gilgun was equal parts louche and pitiful, as well as exceedingly sexy. Ian Colletti played the deformed victim of a botched suicide with charming optimism and fluid-bodied grace.

And while none of that was enough to sustain consistent interest over the season’s ten-odd hours of tape, there’s reason to be hopeful about season two. The finale featured the core trio deciding to hit the trail in order to seek out the AWOL God and make him answer for millennia of bullshit. As they popped on shades and the Rolling Stones’ “Let It Bleed” cranked up (and it should be said that the whole season had top-notch music direction), my heart swelled at the possibilities. With any luck, Preacher will end up being one of those shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Veep: We’ll tell our friends to simply tough out the spotty first season, because once it found its footing after that, it was killer.