Wednesday, October 19, 2016

"Preacher," Year One

Six years ago, one of the first posts I wrote for this blog was a rundown of the many attempts to adapt Garth Ennis's "Preacher" comic for the big screen and the small screen. I concluded that it was not likely that any kind of faithful adaptation would ever get off the ground, because the source material was too extreme for mainstream audiences. Well, I was wrong.

AMC's "Preacher" television series, spearheaded by Sam Catlin, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, has toned down quite a few things from the comic book series, and substantially changed others. However, it has captured a great deal of the anarchic spirit of "Preacher," the shock, the schlock, and above all, the gleeful irreverence of a monumentally screwed up universe. The humor is blacker and sicker than just about anything I've ever seen aired on television. Even the disfigured Arseface is there in all his glory, subtitled sputterings and all.

"Preacher" is the tale of Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), who heads a small church, inherited from his father, in the tiny southern town of Annville. Jesse is a former crook, and his old partner/girlfriend Tulip O'Hare (Ruth Negga) is back in town, trying to tempt him to do another job with her. And Jesse is tempted, as his efforts in Annville seem futile. The church is poorly attended, barely staffed by Jesse and a single mom named Emily (Lucy Griffiths), and commands little influence. Then one day, Jesse wakes up with the ability to command anyone to do anything, his body having become the host for a mysterious power called Genesis. Due to this, he's being hunted down by a pair of sinister law enforcement agents, DeBlanc (Anatol Yusef) and Fiore (Tom Brooke). Also, totally unrelated to any of this is the sudden arrival of Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun), an Irish vampire on the run.

In the biggest departure from the comics, the story stays in Annville for the first season for budgetary reasons. So the writers do their best to flesh out the various townsfolk and have Jesse try to help them. We spend more time with Sheriff Root (W. Earl Brown) and his son Eugene (Ian Coletti), the aforementioned Arseface whose ghastly mug is the result of a botched suicide attempt. And we get to know local reprobate Donny (Derek Wilson) and the weaselly Mayor (Ricky Mabe). And then there's mean old Odin Quincannon (Jackie Earle Haley), the local proprietor of Quinncannon Meat & Power, and the most powerful man in the county. Even without all the supernatural goings on, there's plenty to chew on here. The trouble is that the creators aren't really interested in doing more with them than filling time. The first season is ten episodes, but it seems like it should have been eight, or even six.

Now, "Preacher" is a lot of fun, but it's also very uneven. I give the show's creators all possible credit for translating so much of the comic to the screen, and making some good changes, but there are major systemic problems with the execution. The pacing is all over the place, with some episodes full of wild set pieces and big revelations, followed up others mired in tedious filler. The writing is frequently sloppy, jumbling motivations and squandering the promise of many minor characters. It doesn't help that the series is so haphazardly structured from the outset. The pilot episode is practically incomprehensible if you aren't familiar with the comic. Lots of crazy, violent things happen, but are difficult to piece together into a cohesive narrative. A final major character, currently referred to as the Cowboy (Graham McTavish), appears in flashbacks to the late 1800s, with no explanation as to what he has to do with the story until the second-to-last episode of the season.

What actually keeps the series rolling along, or lurching along really, are the performances of the lead actors and the willingness to deliver big shocks. This version of Jesse Custer may be extremely inconsistent and impulsive, but Cooper keeps him charismatic and intriguing. I think Ruth Negga's Tulip is a significant improvement on the original, now a badass with a record and a hilariously pugnacious attitude. Cassidy's the one character who is almost identical to the comics version, and he frequently steals the show. Joseph Gilgun is definitely my favorite of the cast, especially when he's nonchalantly getting himself horribly injured. I was also gratified to see how well Arseface actually translated to screen. Ian Coletti somehow makes him quite likeable.

It's obvious that the "Preacher" television series was created by fans, and thus I'm hopeful that it will improve as we move past the preliminaries and into more familiar territory in the seasons to come. They have all the pieces assembled, and have displayed the guts necessary to do something really special with them, but so far the series has been very rocky. I'd recommend it to those who like westerns, nasty humor, and a little blasphemy - and who also have the patience to see it through its significant growing pains.

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