A filmed adaptation of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's classic Preacher comic book series has been an on-again, off-again project for more than ten years. Yesterday, the first episode of the upcoming AMC TV series finally saw the light of day. Judging by what I saw, Preacher is going to be bringing the word of God and the Devil with it.
Spoilers follow. By all that's holy, go read Preacher if you haven't already.
At South By Southwest yesterday afternoon, Seth Rogen and fellow executive producers Evan Goldberg and Sam Catlin presented the world premiere of the first episode of Preacher. The series begins airing on AMC in May and Rogen gave a brief introduction, saying how the audience were the first people to see episode one.
The changes made to the start of the Preacher saga are apparent from the beginning. The first scenes were of a comet rocketing through space, tearing past Saturn and other planets before landing on Earth. Jesse isn't the first human host that the celestial force (called Genesis in the comics) bonds with. Instead, it's a hapless, unnamed African minister who briefly uses the powers of verbal compulsion shown in the comics before exploding in a gory mess all over his congregants.
As the episode goes on, the scene shifts to track Genesis' rampage as it explodes men of the cloth from different denominations and countries in an attempt to bond with a human host. One of the biggest laughs came as a breaking news flash announced that Tom Cruise had mysteriously exploded. But the bulk of the opener is spent on main character Jesse Custer, a young man who has returned to his one-horse hometown of Annville, Texas to be a preacher. Jesse's checkered past haunts him, shown in part with scenes where he's making a promise to his dead father. Jesse struggles to give counsel to his flock at All Saints Congregational, flubbing sermons and offering half-arsed platitudes to a man henpecked by his elderly mother.
The main dramatic tension that he deals with comes from figuring out what to do for a boy who says his dad assaults his mum regularly. Jesse could just beat the father up, but things would only escalate and engulf mother and child in a more fiery cycle of abuse. "Violence makes violence makes nothing much at all," Jesse says to young Chris Schenk. Disappointed that retribution won't be marching into his life, Chris snidely replies by saying, "Right. Pray for me, Preacher." Jesse's appeal to Sheriff Root falls on cruelly unsympathetic ears, as the bully lawman seems more concerned with letting Chris' good-ol'-boy daddy have his fun.
Dominic Cooper does a very good Texas accent. But it's just one part of a compelling embodiment of Jesse Custer that truly nails the character. Cooper infuses Jesse with a seductive charm, simmering threat and relatable world-weariness, making him feel like a man who doesn't quite believe in either himself or God anymore. Jesse's sworn off his past of thievery and violence, but you can see he still remembers the taste of all that risk. He longs for some real direction but can't seem to find it in himself or the Lord who's supposed to watching from up above.
Preacher's other main characters both get flashier introductory moments than Jesse. Ruth Nega's performance gives Tulip a hypnotic mix of sweetness and menace. In the flashback that first shows a bit of her backstory, we meet her in the middle of a vicious no-holds-barred fight inside a speeding Mustang. The tussle sends the car ploughing through a Kansas cornfield, ending with the bodies of two dead men spilling out in front of two unattended children playing in their backyard. Tulip lays low in their home and offers astringent life advice to the brother and sister while making a homemade bazooka out of cornshine, coffee cans and metal army men figures. When she returns to Annville she tries to pull Jesse back into a life of crime, but he tells her that he's running a church now. "I hear you pretty much suck at it," she retorts.
But, as good as Tulip is, it's really Joseph Gilgun's Cassidy who steals this inaugural episode. Viewers meet the Irishman as he's tending bar on a private plane booked by a bunch of fatcat swells. He regales them with ribald stories from parties past until he notices that the plane is flying in the wrong direction. A fight straight out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer ensues, complete with pointy, bladed weapons from antiquity. Cassidy's showdown ends with him filling a to-go portion of the dying pilot's blood from a champagne bottle he stabbed his attacker with and jumping out of the burning plane. Gilgun's personification of gleeful debauchery and motormouth brogue make Cassidy an instant delight. He's going to be a fan favourite for sure.
Cassidy and Jesse meet during the latter's fight scene, which begins after daddy Schenk starts whaling on the preacher for talking to his wife without his permission. Jesse delivers a righteous arse-whupping unto Schenk and his cronies, with a minor assist from Cassidy. Sheriff Root shows up at the bar and arrests all the men, which leads to Cassidy and Jesse doing more bonding behind bars. Church organist Emily bails them out, only to hear Jesse say he's going to quit preaching. Jesse takes one last walk through the rundown house of worship to try to reconnect with God and gets up from his knees filled with disappointment at the lack of an answer. Then Genesis blows the doors open.
There's a sense of sheer ornery cussedness that unites Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy in an appealing way. The shared contrariness goes a long way in smoothing over the more grounded approach that Preacher seems to be going for. During the Q&A session after the end of the episode, Rogen said that as soon as he and Goldberg had any power in Hollywood, they tried to make Preacher. "It had been with more powerful, talented people than us. Somehow they fucked it up and it rolled downhill to us." I sat two rows in front of the producers, cast and Preacher co-creator Garth Ennis and got to hear the well-loved comic writer howl with laughter multiple times during the screening. The first episode testified to the producers' love for Preacher and it seems primed to spread that love to a whole new audience.