[Spoilers ahead for season one of Preacher.]
The big difference between Preacher the television show and Preacher the comic is that on the television show, the protagonist doesn't walk with God.
Admittedly, that isn’t the only change. The television series, which launched in 2016, kept the characters and some of the conceptual elements from Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s comics series, but everything else in the first season is swapped around. The second season, which launches on AMC on Sunday, June 25th, is the point where it becomes clear that the setting isn’t what distinguishes the television show from its source material. The real dividing line is preacher Jesse Custer.
Broadly speaking, the 1990s Vertigo comic Preacher was a road trip adventure. The first season of AMC's version, though, is set in a small, quirky Texas town — think Northern Exposure with a lot more blood, or Twin Peaks with more tastelessness. Jesse (Dominic Cooper) has abandoned his life of crime and violence to preach indifferently at a tiny church in his hometown. Out of the blue (more or less literally), he’s possessed by a creature known as Genesis, which gives him the power to make people do whatever he says.
Genesis possessed a number of other religious leaders (including, in one of the series's best offscreen gags, Scientologist Tom Cruise) before it got to Jesse. But all the others, Cruise included, blew up in a shower of flesh and bloody bits. Jesse, for unknown reasons, remains unexploded, and he sets out to use his power for what he considers good, with mixed results. He helps some folks with their marital problems, and gets a comatose girl to open her eyes. But on the other hand, with a careless word, he makes one of his parishioners cut out his own heart, turns another into a mass murderer, and sends a third to hell. So on balance, he doesn’t have a great batting average.
Given Jesse's poor showing, it's no surprise that various powers think he's unfit to wield Genesis' power. Angels track him down and try to remove the creature with a chainsaw. But Jesse happens to be a spectacularly effective hand-to-hand fighter, for reasons that are never adequately explained. Plus, he has a vampire friend and the power of Genesis itself, so he’s hard to kill, even for angels. In fact, Jesse manages to steal their magic phone line to heaven, and through it, learn that God has gone missing. After that big reveal, the entire town blows up, killing all the secondary characters. Cue the next chapter of the story.
The second season opens with Jesse, his contract-killer girlfriend Tulip (Ruth Negga), and their Irish-vampire buddy Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun) setting out to search for the missing God. For readers of the comic, this will sound familiar. The first season was a kind of prequel; the second lets the road-trip dynamic of the Ennis / Dillon comic emerge. In theory, the second season is closer to the original comic’s dynamic, and should be truer to its plot.
The theory doesn't exactly pan out, though. The first episode does begin with Jesse using Genesis to order highway patrolmen to perform various embarrassing acts — a callback to one of the more memorable moments in the comic, where Jesse told a malevolent sheriff to fuck himself, with hyperbolically bloody and disgusting results. In the comic, though, Jesse is basically a good guy; he searches for God on behalf of all of us here on Earth who are tired of being jerked around by blind, absurd fate. Jesse in the first season of AMC’s Preacher, by contrast, is an erratic, often callous jerk, with more than a touch of megalomania. He insists Genesis was given to him for some transcendent reason, and on those grounds, he justifies using his power almost casually — even though, again, he accidentally sent a friend to hell.
The real difference between the comic and television versions of Preacher isn't about Jesse settling down or hitting the road. The real difference is that Jesse in the comic has flaws, but is basically a good guy. AMC's Jesse, by contrast, teeters on the verge of being a supervillain. Dominic Cooper plays the character with a disturbing vagueness, eyes shifting and head nodding when he's confronted with his questionable moral actions and excuses. He’s oblivious to outside criticism and his own interior motivations alike. In one of the early episodes of the second season, he wanders through bars in New Orleans, asking whether anyone has seen God, getting drunker and drunker and picking fights with anyone who points out, with some justice, that he sounds untethered from reality. It's unclear what's driving his quest, besides ego. When he tells Tulip and Cassidy that they all have to keep searching for God, he doesn't even seem like he's convincing himself.
Jesse in the comic can be trusted; Jesse on television really cannot. Tulip keeps secrets from him, including the fact that she slept with Cassidy in season 1. One character withholding information from another often feels like a gimmick — a way to build suspense and spin out the plot for a few more episodes. In this case, though, Tulip’s reticence is totally understandable. Jesse is an erratic, unpredictable jerk with dangerous powers. And if Tulip doesn’t have faith in him, how can the viewers? Jesse is charismatic and he’s the star, but even so, it’s far from clear whether viewers are supposed to empathize with him, or find him repellent.
Over the first few episodes of the second season, Jesse and company are pursued by a supernatural unstoppable cowboy, The Saint of Killers (Graham McTavish), who tears out some poor schlub’s tongue and shoots his way through the surprised members of a firearms convention. The Saint, hired by one of Preacher's angel pursuers, is a callous mass-murderer and an implacable pursuer. Cassidy even jokingly refers to him as the Terminator, for anyone who missed the obvious reference. The cowboy is so incredibly awful that he makes Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy seem relatively decent by comparison, even when they themselves kill the odd human or (to slake Cassidy's vampiric needs) cat. And yet the most emotionally powerful moment in the first three episodes is when the angel Fiore (Tom Brooke) tearfully reaffirms that the Saint needs to kill Jesse. Genesis is too powerful, he says. Jesse claims he has the right to use it; he has to be stopped. There's no flaw in that logic. Jesse Custer with unlimited power is disturbing. Anyone would want to prevent that, if they could.
Garth Ennis’ Preacher is about an absurd and godless world. But it still has a familiar comic book moral order. The title character is righteous, pretty much, and readers could put themselves in his shoes without too much trouble. But the television show is more cynical. In fact, at points, it seems to deliberately mock the narrative convention which makes Jesse the most important person in the world, or worthy of viewers’ attention and sympathy. In one scene, the Saint almost shoots Jesse, but some poor schnook accidentally gets in the way. Jesse is arbitrarily saved because he's the hero, so the writers just kill someone else instead. That's a kind of destiny, perhaps, but it’s not particularly comforting for anyone who doesn't happen to be the chosen star of the world's narrative. Jesse isn't the hero because he's heroic; he's just the hero because he's the hero. It's tautological. There is no greater meaning.
Preacher on television is bleaker even than its comic book counterpart — which makes watching the series unsettling and uncertain, even for folks familiar with the original. What exactly is going to happen with Cassidy's obsession with Tulip? What will Jesse do, and who will he be willing to hurt, in pursuit of his "destiny"? When there's no God, it's hard to know what will happen next, or who’s on the side of the angels.