‘Preacher’ Post-Show Analysis: Season 1, Episode 1: ‘Pilot’
AMC’s Preacher follows small-town Texas pastor Jesse Custer, his former partner-in-crime Tulip, and a foul-mouthed Irish vampire named Cassidy as they attempt to find God in a godless world. Matt Wilson, a devotee of the Vertigo comic series by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, and Elle Collins, a returning parishioner with a dose of skepticism, are checking in to see what they find on the dusty trail in ComicsAlliance’s new recap series, Gospel Truth.
In this week’s “Pilot,” Jesse tries to help a family in crisis, Tulip performs near-unbelievable acts of derring do with household crafts, and Cassidy jumps right out of a plane. Also, a divine force causes some people to explode. The episode was directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, from a story by Goldberg, Rogen and Sam Catlin, who also wrote the teleplay.
Matt: Well, Elle, we’ve gone to Texas. I certainly have my initial thoughts as a fan of the comic series --- this is a loose adaptation, to be sure --- but I’m curious what you thought coming into the series relatively cold. The show does a pretty decent job of finding the comic’s mix of ultraviolence, serious drama, and dark, grotesque humor. How did that tone strike you?
Elle: I did actually read Preacher when it was first coming out. I didn’t start at the beginning, but I caught up in trades sometime in the late '90s and was buying it in single issues by the time it ended. And by then, I was already annoyed by Garth Ennis’s views on morality and gender.
That’s only gotten worse in my memories for the last 16 years, during which I’ve never felt the need to reread the series. So when I heard they were making a TV show, I was actively disinterested at first. But now that I’ve watched the first episode, I’m tentatively on board. The cast is pretty great, and I think the off-kilter tone, while I could imagine it going awry, is really working right now.
Matt: I read the series all in one go when I was about 19, which I think is more or less the time to read Preacher. But yes, in hindsight, anything involving sexuality and gender is pretty easily the weak spot of the series (that and the Quincannon meatpacking plant storyline, which is obliquely referenced in this episode). I often wondered if those things were a reflection of Ennis’ actual beliefs or him trying to write characters with a certain level of bigotedness, which, for better or worse, comes through in this episode to a degree.
There’s a scene that’s played for laughs about the town of Annville changing its mascot from a very over-the-top racist Native American caricature into a dork-ish animal character, and there’s a fight about it. The joke is supposed to be on the people for their devotion to this racist mascot, but it edges right up to the line of the joke being the mascot itself. That’s... a pretty good approximation of Ennis.
Elle: Yeah, I thought the same thing. It’s one of those jokes where people on either side are apt to laugh, which I feel like is not the ideal for a joke about racism.
But there’s also a lot in the show that already seems like an improvement on the comics, as far as these issues go. Casting a black woman as Tulip is a great choice, especially since Ruth Negga is so wonderful in the role. And maybe I’m just remembering the comic uncharitably, but Dominic Cooper’s take on Jesse Custer feels less like a '90s comics “cool dude,” and more like a complicated character who’s aware of his problems and emotionally affected by them.
Matt: My reading of the comic was that a lot of Jesse’s “cool dude” tendencies were a veneer to hide his immense vulnerability and sense of inadequacy, but I take your point. Cooper’s version of the character is basically an open wound.
I think I’d like his portrayal a lot more, though, if he wasn’t so clearly struggling with his Texas accent throughout the episode. Cooper is English, and it ain’t hard to tell. It distracted me throughout, particularly during the parts in which the titular preacher was called on to preach. I deeply hope the dialects improve throughout the season, because they were my number one complaint. (Though there’s a certain irony that a show that’s an adaptation of a Northern Irish writer trying to write Texans features British actors trying to approximate Texas accents.)
Negga, who is Ethiopian and Irish, had a similar issue, but it wasn’t quite as bad, and she was so magnetic as Tulip that it mattered a lot less. Tulip was by far the highlight of the episode for me.
Elle: Tulip is fantastic. I’ve never seen Negga in anything before, but she already feels like the breakout star of this show.
Matt: It helps that she was introduced in such a dynamic sequence: a fight in a car that goes into a cornfield and then ends at a farmhouse, where then she conscripts some kids into helping her make a homemade bazooka that she uses to shoot down a helicopter(!). Far-fetched, I guess, but great. And she plays it really well. It takes comics Tulip, who we first see in flashback shooting off a guy’s jaw, and ramps her up several notches.
Elle: It’s hard to imagine that cornfield/helicopter sequence working if Tulip was played by anyone less immediately winning than Ruth Negga. I was enjoying her too much to question why we were spending so long on this farm in Kansas.
Matt: I had exactly one thought outside of the reality of the show, which was, “Jeez, this sequence must have been expensive,” but otherwise I was totally invested.
Elle: On the subject of main characters who were introduced through action scenes, and actors not doing their own accents, can we talk about Cassidy? Obviously I knew the vampire reveal was coming, but when he bit that dude on the plane, my first thought was how fun it feels to have a vampire character on a show that’s not about vampires.
Matt: It’ll be interesting to see how his vampiric tendencies come up. And good gracious, that bite was a Steve Dillon panel brought to life, wasn’t it?
Elle: Joe Gilgun’s face is a Steve Dillon panel brought to life. I can’t speak with any authority on how good his Irish accent is, but I like that he doesn’t sound like the gentle Irish brogue we’re used to on American TV. He’s almost incomprehensible, which I think he should be. And that scene with the cow was something else.
Matt: The cow thing was good and also very true to the spirit of the comic. In that same vein (see what I did there) the thing in the plane where he stabs the guy with the top of the wine bottle and then uses the mouth like a spigot to pour blood into a water bottle was one of the two cleverest gags in the episode. I clapped my hands and guffawed at it.
Elle: Yeah, that was pretty funny. I liked the barroom scene where he and Jesse meet, and Jesse beats up the bad dad and his friends. The Confederate uniforms were maybe a little on the nose, but I thought it worked. That was a very common sort of scene, where the guy who doesn’t want to fight anymore holds back, and of course we know all along that when he lets himself go he’s going to be the best fighter by far, but the combination of Cooper’s performance, the staging of the scene, and the fact that he was standing up for a child really made it work for me.
Matt: I unfortunately thought it was one of the more rote and predictable parts of the episode. I’m not as up on Cooper’s performance as you are --- again, the dialect killed a lot of it for me --- and the whole thing was weird to begin with. The twist that the bad dad’s wife actually liked his abusive behavior was... I don’t know. I guess it was a surprise, but I’m not sure what it added.
Elle: Oh yeah, I thought that bit was weird and gross. Obviously, kink is a thing that people enjoy in all sorts of forms, but using it to say that what you thought was abuse, and what looked to everyone (including the couple’s son) like abuse, was actually consensual just felt… narratively unfortunate? But as far as the barroom scene, I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for watching the jerk who’s been well-established as really needing a beatdown getting beaten down. That’s probably why I like pro wrestling.
Matt: And I am a fan of the classic swerve, so it’s kind of disappointing to me when things go pretty much as I suspect they are from the minute they’re introduced. Like, was there any way Jesse telling the congregation member played by Brian Huskey (who is great) to “open [his] heart” wasn’t going to end up the way it did? That was telegraphed from minute one, at least for any viewer familiar enough with the comic to know what the Word of God is all about.
Elle: That was definitely predictable, and I didn’t care for it. I guess it served to show viewers who don’t know about the Word of God exactly how effective (and literal) it is, but the fact that he had to fly to Florida to do it meant that Jesse and the other characters learned nothing, so that reveal still has to come later.
Matt: And we already saw what the Word of God does at the very beginning, when Genesis (at least I figure they’ll call it that on the show) leaps into the body of a pastor in Africa (the country is never specified). He tells his congregation to be quiet, and they are quiet, until he explodes.
The stuff where Genesis is jumping into holy men throughout the world before getting to Jesse was one of the more clever parts, I thought. I especially liked the news report about Tom Cruise exploding (that was my favorite gag number 2).
Elle: The Tom Cruise joke was great. And the exploding holy men bit is a good way to establish that there are sinister organizations investigating what’s going on, before Jesse even gets involved. Is one of those two guys Herr Starr? I assume it’s at least his group (I don’t remember what they were called) that’s pursuing the mysterious explosions, and has already arrived in Annville.
Matt: The Grail was his group, and my assumption is that the guy who hasn’t spoken yet is Starr, but there’s always a chance that could be a fakeout.
The thing with the exploding preachers and priests of various kinds does another thing: It shows the power of Genesis without having to make it so that it kills Jesse’s congregation, which is what it does in the comic. I take that to mean that will be the one big place the show diverges from its source material. Preacher the comic is a road story, with Tulip, Cassidy and Jesse looking for God. Preacher the TV show seems like it’s going to stay planted in Texas, possibly even with Jesse helping out various congregants every week. There was too much establishing of the characters in the town for it to be anything else.
Elle: I think that’s a good change for the show in two ways. It gives it an ongoing setting, which helps create a mood for the series, and also allows them to spend their budget on things besides showing us a new town every week. And it also makes the title fit better. This is a show about a preacher, so it makes sense for him to be preaching? In a way, the comic was just about a drifter who wore a white collar.
Matt: Yeah, that’s fair. And I’m not really looking for a direct adaptation of the comic series anyway. First, it’d be really tough to adapt every detail of this very late-'90s Vertigo comic in 2016, for reasons we’ve already discussed. Second, you’d probably get through all 66 issues of the comic in... two seasons, maybe? If not less. So I don’t mind the changes. I just think it’s interesting to point them out.
Another one is that Cassidy is just meeting Jesse for the first time here, when in the comic they all have history (and Cassidy meets Tulip first, not Jesse). I’m not sure how that’ll play out.
Elle: I had totally forgotten that detail. But speaking of characters from the comic, I feel like we’re almost done talking about this episode, and we haven’t mentioned Eugene yet. How about that makeup job?
Matt: It was really good, but I do wonder how Arseface (who is not referred to by that name here) will fit into the show. So far, he’s just a kid that Jesse feels the need to go visit and possibly feels some guilt about. We’ll see. I do think that it’s absolutely wonderful that W. Earl Brown plays his dad, the sheriff, though. I love that dude.
Elle: My assumption is that Eugene will get his nickname as soon as he meets Cassidy, but I agree that it’s hard to guess where he fits in. But that’s sort of true of everyone, with the structure of the story so fundamentally changed to keep it (at least mostly) in Annville. As of this first episode, I’m definitely engaged with the show and curious to see how it develops.
Matt: It’s funny, because I’m a little on the fence. I didn’t hate this pilot, but it wasn’t quite as good as I wanted it to be, and that’s not even because of the comic so much --- I feel like it does an okay job at getting the comic tone, even without Jesse’s famous lighter showing up, and with considerably less religious iconoclasm --- but because of the AMC drama pedigree. The action’s there. The show is well made. The acting is good, if shaky at times. The writing’s not bad. But I think it could all improve. I hope it does. Now that the table is more or less set, I think it has the potential to.