In a dusty little town called Annville, Texas, where vandals routinely rearrange the letters on the welcome sign in front of All Saints Congregational Church (“Jesus Free With Store Purchase”), “Preacher” is about to arrive. And when he does, prepare to praise him.
The 10-episode first season of the dark and hilarious AMC series, premiering Sunday, is yet another adaptation from the world of comic books, but this isn’t your usual comic book show about caped dudes running around in blue longjohns. Instead, the antihero of the piece is a bedeviled man of the cloth whose moral compass is on permanent spin cycle.
Writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon developed the 75-issue comic book franchise in the ’90s about a preacher who is accidentally zapped with something that gives him special powers. They’re not enough to quell his deep, dark moral conflicts, so he, his ex-girlfriend and an Irish vampire go off in search of God. Not God in the metaphorical sense, but the actual dude.
Before we get to that point in TV series, executive produced by Seth Rogen, Sam Catlin and Evan Goldberg, we get to know our anti-hero a bit better. Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) is haunted by memories of his father, also a preacher, and struggling to lead a better life than he did before he came back to Annville. It’s not going all that well.
And no wonder. Jesse Custer is the most unlikely literary preacher since Elmer Gantry. He drinks, he smokes, and, in partnership with his ex-girlfriend Tulip (Ruth Negga), he’s done very bad things in the past.
If you know the comic books, you’ll be ahead of the game as the early episodes unfold. The rest of us have to work a little more than do with other shows, which regularly underestimate audience intelligence by oversharing every detail in the pilot about the main characters.
Jesse is a simmering enigma – so eerily calm on the surface, but roiling inside. We get flashbacks of traumatic moments in his childhood– a killing, a beating by his father – and then other moments from when he and Tulip were together and up to no good. But without any context, we don’t know how Jesse got to where he is now. What brought him back to Annville? What is he running from?
The other characters are similarly elusive for a while, but nonetheless entirely captivating. There’s the Irish drifter, Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun), for example, who jumps out of a private jet after shooting, stabbing, slashing and incinerating the crew and passengers, and then landing more or less unharmed near Annville.
Cassidy is certainly loquacious, but that doesn’t mean we entirely get who or what he is. In short order, we do learn he has a fondness for Chinese food and thinks “The Big Lebowski” is overrated. In passing, he mentions he’s 119 years old.
Is that a joke? He certainly isn’t joking when he dispatches and dismembers the two weird guys who seem to be pursuing him, Deblanc (Anatol Yusek) and Fiore (Tom Brook).
But the fact is, amid the copious bloodletting, the series is laced with hilarious and often very black humor. Example: Town bully Donnie Schenk (Derek Wilson), who works for Odin Quincannon (Jackie Earle Haley), celebrates killing a squirrel by crowing, “I just Abe Lincolned that squirrel.” After Donnie’s arm is broken and he has to cradle it in a sling, Quincannon orders him to remove his lunch tray from his desk, and allows Donnie to struggle comically for a few minutes before telling him not to bother.
The townfolk are old fashioned, but grudgingly trying to keep up with the times. They’re transitioning the school sports team’s mascot from Chief Red Savage to Pedro the Prairie Dog, for example, thinking it’s progress. At one point, we see the mopey mascot trudging along a street in the dark.
Every character is memorable, but none as much so as Eugene Root (Ian Colletti) whose face was horribly disfigured by a shotgun blast. His mouth was reconstructed to form an unmistakably sphincter-like opening which has earned him the sobriquet Arseface. Grotesque though he may be, Eugene is a sweet-natured, sadly hopeful character, who truly believes that God has a plan for him and he only wants to be worthy of it. He avoids social situations because he doesn’t want to make people feel uncomfortable.
Eugene is only the most obvious example of how showrunner Catlin and his writers glide effortlessly between drama, supernatural melodrama, horror and dark comedy. It’s all part of an effectively complex strategy to compel our attention with characters who are not always what they initially seem to be, teasing morsels of information strewn about with seeming casualness, and a laudable refusal to reveal too much too soon.
The point is, it works. From the get-go, we’re prompted to acclimate ourselves the notion that, like the man or woman upstairs, “Preacher” works in mysterious and unpredictable ways.
“Preacher” debuts Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC. New episodes begin Sunday, June 5, at 9 p.m.