It took a lot of false starts to bring Preacher to the small screen. Based on the comic book series by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, both film and television adaptations have been rumored or in pre-production purgatory since the late 90s, involving everyone from director Rachel Talalay and actor James Marsden to HBO execs to director Sam Mendes. Kevin Smith even debunked rumors of his involvement in a film version in a series of tweets that highlighted exactly how challenging it was to adapt the source material:
Steve grabbed a beer & burger with me & @SMosier at the Tribeca Grill, where we said "Use our names for whatever our names are worth." Our
— KevinSmith (@ThatKevinSmith) February 15, 2011
names were worth bupkis. @SMosier & I pitched it to BobWeinstein, who said "I don't get it. This is a comic book? The Crow I get. This? No."
— KevinSmith (@ThatKevinSmith) February 15, 2011
Suffice it to say, it’s been a long time coming. On the heels of the the momentum and success of The Walking Dead, AMC finally stepped up to give the series a home in the hands of producers Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, and Sam Catlin, and finally all of those false starts and dashed hopes have amounted to something weird and fun and spectacular.
First thing is first: the premise. The television series follows Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), a preacher with a troubled past living in a small Texas town. On the precipice of giving up his role as a preacher, Custer is inhabited by a mysterious – light, creature, something? – from space, which gives him a power that forces anyone to do exactly what he says. Quite literally, in fact. Meanwhile, Custer’s ex-girlfriend Tulip (Ruth Negga) tries to pull him back into his old line of work while a fast new friend Cassidy (Joe Gilgun) uses Custer’s church to hide out from some mysterious enemies.
As with any book-to-film, but particularly one this controversial, Preacher has to play a delicate balancing act between honoring the source material and working in a new medium; not only for content and appropriateness, but for practical and budget purposes. Having never read the comic, I decided to go into the viewing experience cold and read some of the comics afterwards to see if the show made sense to someone who wasn’t a long-time fan. I’m glad I did, because there was a lot in those first four episodes that didn’t make sense or have much context. If I’d read the comic, I probably would’ve written those scenes off as something that wouldn’t work for casual viewers, but I wouldn’t have been giving audiences enough credit. Perhaps it’s due to the trend Lost kicked off and dozens of shows have emulated since, but while there’s a lot to the first four episodes that lack context, these scenes end up feeling like interesting puzzle pieces that establish the mood of the series.
After reading several issues of the comic, I was surprised at how drastically different the actual story was. I won’t spoil anything about the premise, for those who also want to go into the show cold, but I was shocked at how quickly the comic dealt out the backstory and action beats in comparison to the show. But in the end, it makes sense. The television version of Preacher works to build roots in one place (e.g. a few specific sets) with a frequently-recurring cast of regular, fleshed-out characters, which is what we’re used to seeing in television. That said, I’d argue the show captures the soul of what I’ve read of the comic as well as any television adaptation could possibly hope, full of Sam Raimi horror/gore and Coen brothers-style quirk. The sum of the parts is something unique in tone, and the type of focused character development you’d expect from a showrunner like Catlin, who served as a producer on Breaking Bad, elevates the material beyond shock value (which, for me, is all the television adaptation of The Walking Dead is anymore – shock value without worthwhile character development).
Lastly, I was amused at how many actors in this series were salvaged from less successful comic book portrayals in the past, proving what a difference the source material and script makes. As much as I enjoyed Agent Carter, Dominic Cooper wasn’t necessarily a problem, but was never my favorite in the Marvel universe as a young Howard Stark. Ruth Negga was utterly wasted as the porcupine-styled Raina on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Lucy Griffiths was famously written out of Constantine after only the pilot episode. I wasn’t dreading the cast, but based on their previous comic book adaptation appearances, I wasn’t excited either. The chemistry of the the above-mentioned cast, the caliber of acting – everything here is top notch. I’ll admit I had a little bit of trouble understanding Joe Gilgun’s Irish Cassidy in the pilot, but it’s a minor quibble (and, well, probably means he’s doing a good job). Ian Colletti’s Arseface and his father Hugo Root are arguably and appropriately toned down from the comics, and Jackie Earle Haley’s Odin Quincannon is a man decades behind the times but eerily compelling.
Overall, it’s nothing short of a miracle that everything in this show manages to work so well, but there you have it. Preacher premieres on Sunday, May 22 at 10 p.m. Eastern on AMC.
Entertainment writer and editor for The Beat.
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