Spoilers for seasons 1 and 2 of Preacher ahead.
Early in season 3 of the AMC series Preacher, Tulip (Ruth Negga) has a vision. She’s running down the road to the rural town of Angelville when she sees a man in a black-and-white spotted dog suit. The man-dog is ridiculous, but also eerie — particularly when it tells Tulip she’s been chosen for a divine purpose. It gestures with its floppy paws and stares at her with black, shiny, empty eyes.
Many television shows and movies use horror tropes as part of an action/comedy mix. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sleepy Hollow, and Wynonna Earp all sprinkle vampires or demons around their narratives. But while all these shows feature monsters, they aren’t working primarily to terrify or disturb the audience.
Preacher, a supernatural drama series based on the comic series by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, is a bit different. It doesn’t repurpose horror as comedy or drama. Instead, it’s filled with absurd events and situations which — like that man-dog — come across as simultaneously funny and frightening. Especially in the new season, which includes witches and zombies in a familiar Southern gothic setting, the show can at times be Buffy-esque. But what’s really special about Preacher is that it suggests that horror and comedy aren’t different elements to combine, they’re part of a single whole. The thing that makes you laugh is also the thing that haunts your dreams.
Like its comic-book inspiration, the television show focuses on Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), a hard-fighting, morally dubious preacher possessed by an entity called Genesis. Genesis gives Jesse the power to command anyone to do anything. In the show’s first two seasons, Jesse uses his power to try to build a small congregation in a rural Texas church, with disastrous results. In the second season, he, Tulip, and an Irish vampire named Cassidy (Joe Gilgun) hit the road to pursue God, who they’ve learned has abandoned heaven in order to listen to jazz in New Orleans. Jesse thinks he can use Genesis to force God to explain why the world is such a mess. But tracking the all-powerful deity proves difficult. Instead, Jesse ends up agreeing to become a messiah at the behest of an organization called the Grail.
His career as world-savior is interrupted at the end of season 2 when agents of the Grail kill Tulip. Jesse could normally bring her back to life with Genesis, but his power is mysteriously on the fritz. Season 3, therefore, starts with Jesse and Cassidy bringing Tulip to Jesse’s old home in Angelville; his grandmother is a witch, who can raise the dead.
That plot description doesn’t capture the flavor of Preacher’s humor. The comic book was cynical and deliberately profane, but it was built around a road-trip adventure narrative. Jesse was a more or less conventional hero whose moral sense drove the action and the narrative. In the television series, by contrast, Jesse has less agency. He and the other characters often come across as straight men wandering haplessly through a series of mean-spirited Monty Python gags.
The first season, for example, ends with Jesse’s entire congregation, and their entire town, being buried in a literal explosion of pig shit. In the second season, Jesse’s friend Eugene Root (Ian Colletti), who has been accidentally consigned to Hell, escapes with the help of an apparently remorseful Hitler (Noah Taylor), who then betrays Eugene… because he’s Hitler. As in Time Bandits, where the final gag is that the protagonist’s parents die, the laugh line is the sadistic bleakness. Of course Hitler gets out of Hell. That’s the kind of universe we’re living in.
A malevolent universe can be funny. But it’s more than that as well. When the camera lingers on Tulip, dead in the back seat of Jesse’s car as they drive to Alphaville, her perfect, still face has the excessive clarity of nightmare. At the end of the second season, immortal vampire Cassidy has a conversation with his long-estranged mortal son, Denis (Ronald Guttman). Denis looks like an old man — he was on the verge of death before Cassidy bit him and changed him to a vampire, too. Denis enjoys being a vampire, especially the part where he gets to feed on unsuspecting beautiful women. Cassidy has long controlled his own bloodlust, but he’s afraid Denis’ example will overwhelm his self-control, and he begs his son to be a good boy. Denis has only spoken French for the entire season, but for the first time, he talks in English. “Can you be a good boy, papa?” he asks, just about licking his lips.
It’s a chilling, David Lynch-worthy moment, not least because it mocks the idea of rules or laws trying to keep us from the abyss. Papa tries to set you right, but who sets papa right? “Everything is possible” can mean anarchic fun and good times, but it can also mean that your worst fears can come true. A world without rules is a hell — as Denis discovers from Cassidy’s response to his behavior.
Cassidy isn’t the only abusive parent in Preacher. Season 3 opens with a flashback to Jesse’s grandmother, Marie L’Angelle ( Betty Buckley) slicing open his mother with a knife as punishment for trying to leave. And these bad parents are only smaller versions of the ultimate, divine bad parent. God has abandoned heaven, and is now driving around earth on a Harley, wearing a dog suit. He’s that man-dog who appears to Tulip in a vision—and later in the flesh. Man-dog God assures Tulip he has a plan, but she’s skeptical. “You’re just dicking around,” she says with some bitterness, pointing to the biker chick waiting for God to return to his machine. God, for his part, looks nervous at being found out.
A God who is “just dicking around” is a God who is philosophically absurd. The TV version of Preacher is about a world that doesn’t make sense, ruled by an arbitrary jerk who either doesn’t care what happens, can’t do anything about it, or actively enjoys watching people suffer. Preacher is close kin to Kafka — and it’s notable that when Kafka’s friends heard him read his stories aloud, they reacted with helpless laughter. Some guy just woke up and realized he was a bug? That’s even funnier than an entire town drowned in pig poop.
Jesse, with the power of Genesis, wants to set things to rights, and order everyone into their proper place. But he’s like Wile E. Coyote in a Road Runner cartoon, or the priest in The Exorcist. The story is rigged against him, because the story is rigged against everybody. “I can’t help you,” Jesse tells one of is grandmother’s sad, soulless zombies when it begs him for aid. The walking dead can’t be fixed. Even if they’re brought back to life, it’s only temporary.
At the beginning of season 3, Jesse doesn’t seem any closer to finding God, or finding a meaningful use for his power, than he did at the beginning of season 1. The aimless, cyclical nature of his quest can perhaps can be seen as a weakness of serialized television. But in Preacher’s case, it’s also thematic. There isn’t a plan or a payoff, except for the fact that there isn’t a plan or a payoff. The universe is waiting to get you in a dog suit. Maybe it’s laughing behind that mask; maybe it’s screaming. Or maybe the comedy and horror both come from realizing that there’s nothing there.
Preacher season 3 will premiere on AMC on Sunday, June 24 at 10PM ET.