AMC's Preacher starts off too safe and too slow

When Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are the best part of your TV show

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When word broke a few years ago that AMC was ordering a pilot based on Preacher, the controversial ‘90s comic from Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, it was a bit of a record-scratch moment. Not because of the comic’s history as a particularly tough adaptation to crack — everyone from Kevin Smith to Sam Mendes had tried to make it happen at one point or another — but because of the creative duo that had apparently done it: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.

The childhood friends-turned-creative-partners have been more associated with stoner comedies than horror dramas, and adapting the story of a preacher possessed by a supernatural entity that goes on a road trip to find God made no intuitive sense other than the fact that Rogen had long been a vocal fan. But credit where credit is due: the Rogen / Goldberg-directed pilot, which airs on May 22nd, is a bizzarro mix of shock gore, adolescent humor, and shattered faith that tees up what could be an oddly compelling TV series. Where the show ends up going from there, however, is another matter.

The whole thing starts off in the style of a bad ‘50’s sci-fi movie, complete with clunky special effects. A mysterious force rockets through the universe, finally finding its way to Earth where it slams into the body of a reverend in a small church in Africa — and promptly makes him explode, drenching his congregation in blood and viscera. It’s a quick warning shot to the audience, and sets up one of the pilot’s best running gags as the force body-hops the globe from preacher to shaman, at one point blowing up a celebrity in a great throwaway gag. (Seriously, don’t Google this one. Just let it happen.)

The force eventually finds a new, non-exploding home in Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper from Fleming and the upcoming Warcraft). Custer is a classic anti-hero and the last guy on Earth you’d expect to see strapping on a priest’s collar. A chain-smoking alcoholic with a mysterious and violent past, he’s recently returned to the small town of Annville, Texas to take over the church his father once ran. Jesse hopes that speaking the Good Word will salvage his own faith as much as it well help his parishioners, and with wife beaters and redneck cops filling the pews, he’s got a shabby flock to tend to — one that he suddenly finds he has a supernatural ability to influence.

But Preacher knows the fans it’s catering to, and it takes plenty of time away from Jesse to hang out with comic favorites Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun), a fast-talking Irish vampire with an even bigger drinking problem than Jesse; and Tulip (Ruth Negga), the preacher’s rough-and-tumble former lover. The show doesn’t really set up each of the characters so much as it just expects the audience to know who they are the moment they appear, but as a function of a television pilot, the shorthand works. They’re both walking enigmas, and whether it’s Negga’s quirky badass — happy to take out a car of bad guys one moment, and make nice with a pair of children the next — or the slur-a-minute shenanigans of Cassidy, the pilot wraps leaving the audience wondering just how they’re going to fit into everything.

Preacher promotional still (AMC)

(Richard Foreman / AMC)

The first episode of a TV show is about asking questions that the series will hopefully go on to answer, and that flexibility lets Rogen and Goldberg gleefully mash together tones and moments without much consequence. There's enough confidence out of the gate that the audience can assume it will all come together when the show settles into its week-to-week rhythm — but that’s when Preacher starts stumbling. AMC provided four of the season’s 10 episodes for review, and the opening momentum slows with every subsequent installment. One moment, the show acts like a procedural. The next, it’s basking in Cassidy doing his best Evil Dead impression. In another, it sidebars into a mini-bottle episode focused on Tulip. The amorphous nature of the show that was a positive in the pilot becomes a negative with each new episode, with the audience never getting a sense of what makes the characters tick or why they would spend time together the rare times they do share the screen. (You'll ask yourself why Jesse is letting Cassidy stay with him enough times to build a drinking game out of it.)

After four episodes I was still waiting for the 'real' show to kick in

Obviously, part of that answer is They’re big characters in the comic!, and that’s the challenge of an adaptation like this: the source material should serve as inspiration, but the show also has to sustain itself on its own. Four episodes into Preacher, so little had happened I felt like I was still waiting for the "real" series to kick in. And while showrunner Sam Catlin (Breaking Bad) gives the show the same steady, measured pace that turned Walter White’s story into a phenomenon, the richly relatable characters are missing here. Fans of the comic can use their own memories of Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy to fill in a chemistry and dynamic that doesn’t actually exist on the screen, but the rest of us only have what we're given.

Preacher promotional still (AMC)

(Richard Foreman / AMC)

Two things make me think Preacher may end up being greater than the sum of its first four episodes. The first is Eugene, a teenager that’s been left horribly disfigured as the result of a suicide attempt gone wrong. Eugene starts off as a cringe-inducing joke, both because of the horrifying makeup work, but also because of the cruelty his very existence seems to demonstrate toward teens struggling with depression (to give you a sense of the vibe, the character is nicknamed "Arseface" in the comics). But as played by Ian Colletti, Eugene is a young man that’s impossibly hopeful and inspiring, openly talking with Jesse about his concerns that God may not love him anymore given what he’s done. The fact that the show can successfully realize that character, even amidst its outstanding issues, is a minor miracle that points to the potential of the creative team at work.

The other big component is the comic’s treatment of religion, which aside from the pilot, the first batch of episodes don’t really touch at all. Preacher’s caustic worldview of a universe in which God has gone MIA, leaving humanity to fend for itself, was considered so controversial in the past that it helped kill off all those unrealized movie and TV adaptations. But it’s integral to the story Ennis was telling with the book, and if you sift through the episodes, there are minor clues that the show is using its slow pace to acclimate the audience in preparation for something that’s far more disturbing than anything Rogen and Goldberg serve up in their initial outing. Jesse’s dismay that the voice of God has gone silent; the arrival of forces hunting the creature that’s taken root inside the preacher; and Jesse’s single-minded drive to manipulate more people into hearing his words all point to an open-armed embrace of what really made Preacher the classic it’s become.

That embrace, should it ever arrive, will bring controversy, outrage, and headlines — but for a network that regularly frustrates fans on the way to record ratings with shows like The Walking Dead, that shouldn’t be any problem at all. If anything, Preacher is a television series that will only be considered a success if it ends up offending — but first, it has to keep people interested long enough to get there.

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