The AMC comic-book series Preacher is loosely based on the 1990s Vertigo series by Garth Ennis and Steven Dillon about a band of evil-battling heroes led by a former criminal turned small town minister (Dominic Cooper’s Jesse Custer). It’s not as great as you’ve heard, and sometimes, it’s not even good. At times this sun-baked Western-noir-science fiction-supernatural drama feels less like a coherent story or statement than a tenuously connected assortment of setpieces, a treasure trove of raw material for YouTube clips and gifs. (A Sam Raimi-inspired fight scene involving a chainsaw should spawn a dozen all by its lonesome.) It takes spirituality and redemption seriously, and seems truly interested in questioning the Western code of righteous violence and purging toxic masculinity from the bloodstreams of many popular genres at once, but it’s also infatuated with the cliches it scrutinizes. And it leans on gratuitous sadism and chop-chop-edited, TV-MA fights enough to give each episode regular adrenaline injections, on the off-chance you were tired of hearing characters work through their issues. (Clint Eastwood’s Westerns, another key inspirational text, are that way, too: the violence there is often tinged with regret and disgust, but Clint always looks scary-cool-awesome when he’s thrashing and shooting people, and no matter how bad his characters are, we always root for him to “win.”)
The source material, which I’ve loved ever since my friend Alan Sepinwall gave me several issues as a birthday present in 1998, has many of the same hypocrisies and contradictions, but assimilates them with more grace, as comics tend to do on the page; I don’t mean that to imply that certain comics are fundamentally unadaptable, just that fixed drawings and words have an abstract quality that’s very forgiving, more so than images featuring actors moving and talking in real (or “real”) locations. And while the first four episodes of this series go a long way towards re-imagining its inspiration, I wish it had thought harder and found the courage to be even wilder and weirder.
Still: Even when I didn’t enjoy Preacher, I admired it, because it’s peculiar and ambitious and often feels obsessively personal. Adapted by executive producers (and occasional directors) Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, it’s handsomely produced, convincingly acted, and marked by droll humor and regional (Texan) color, and its intended audience will appreciate all the overt nods to masters of Dude Cinema: Sergio Leone, Quentin Tarantino, Kubrick, the Coen brothers. A more immediate predecessor, Breaking Bad, may loom largest of all: the latter’s composer, Dave Porter, scored this show, too, and its regular cinematographer Michael Slovis directed episode three. In an age of tediously hyper-real FX, any show that kicks off with retro-cornball images of a foreign object hurtling past planets that seem to be made of styrofoam and cardboard gets 50 bonus points from me. There are many more visual touches in that vein, plus eccentric and exciting characters lovingly drawn from Ennis and Dillon’s comic—including a wisecracking, possibly immortal Irish troublemaker (Joe Gilgun) who is quite literally dropped into the story, and Jesse’s ex-girlfriend, Tulip (Ruth Negga), who’s first glimpsed battling burly criminals inside a moving car as it hurtles through a cornfield. (The cornstalks go “thump-thump-thump-thump” throughout the fight, which is scored to Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” and after it crashes, an adorable farm moppet tells her, “”My mom’s dead, and my dad’s at work, but I’m ten, so I’m in charge.”)
Some of the adaptation choices are questionable—characters’ entrances have been moved around and their motivations somewhat altered, not always to good effect. There’s a lot of wholesale invention and random embellishment, particularly in the Rogen-esque dialogue—but that’s a good thing in the end because it cauterizes any possibility of Game of Thrones- or Walking Dead-style comments section thread-jacks by viewers who want TV and cinema adaptations to transcribe every word and image. Indeed, there are many points when Preacher seems to not give a damn what anyone wants it to be—an attitude that evokes one of my favorite descriptions of the difference between pre- and postwar American jazz: the former was for dancing, the latter for listening. In its haphazard but committed way, it offers further proof that the movie-TV comic book adaptation is taking baby steps away from the jokey-sincere PG-13 blockbuster template, and trying to create something like a genuine auteurist statement, a work designed to evoke emotions and reactions rather than to sell toys (and the next film in the series). The color scheme favors brown, red, and black. When combined with elegant camera movements and Porter’s action cues, this lends certain images (such as an iconic shot of Jesse silhouetted just beyond an open doorway) a sense of age and weight, a tactic that works at (intriguing) cross-purposes with the unusually subtle sound design, with its whirring insects and moaning breezes and generous silences, and all the pop and country music songs on the soundtrack, a truck-stop jukebox lineup that constitutes the most delightful TV needle-drops outside of The Americans and Fargo. (Johnny Cash appears more than once.)
The most welcome aspect of all is Preacher’s seeming empathy for the same characters it watches suffer, die or simply wander about in spiritual torment, wondering if there is in fact a God, and if so, whether he’s an absentee landlord, a sadist, or simply not as smart as He thinks he is (He did create us in his image, so He could be all three). Characters who might’ve been relegated to sneering sick-joke status in a lesser series are granted depth and specificity here, so that your heart goes out to them even when you barely know them; the most striking of these is the son of the local sheriff (my friend W. Earl Brown, who’s on a hot streak these days), a deformed young man named Eugene (Ian Colletti) — a character who survived a shotgun blast to the face but was cursed with a mouth that looks like a puckered anus. He tells Jesse that he used to talk to God but he eventually stopped. “I don’t think that God wants me there,” he says. “I think He’s mad at me. I used to pray to Him and I would hear Him talk back, but now it’s just — it’s just real quiet. Are there some things that even God won’t forgive?”
We might find out, we might not; stumbles and all, I trust Preacher to find its way towards an answer eventually, in its own way, and at its own pace.