Back in 2005, I was living in a four-bedroom townhouse on the west side of Indianapolis with three of my closest friends – one of whom had the complete collection of Preacher graphic novels. I remember picking up the first volume and being flabbergasted at the amount of profanity, violence and blasphemy pouring off the pages – surely this couldn’t actually have been published and released for public consumption, right?
It took me less than a full week to run through the entire narrative, a gleefully insolent examination of religion and hypocrisy that went out of its way to offend as many people as possible, starring the most unlikely group of “heroes” imaginable: a former small town minister with an otherworldly power, his trigger-happy ex-girlfriend, and a booze-guzzling Irish vampire. Preacher was unlike anything I had ever experienced before, and my roommates and I were certain that it would never make the transition from page to screen.
It took just over a decade to prove us wrong.
Granted, this version of Preacher – created by executive producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg – is an adaptation in the strictest sense of the word, and comic fans expecting a panel-by-panel retelling of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s cult classic are in for a bit of a surprise. The basic elements are there, but the television series takes some pretty significant liberties with the story’s pacing, accelerating slowly instead of mashing the gas pedal all the way to the floor.
Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) has returned to his hometown of Annville, Texas, leaving behind a presumed life of misdeeds to become a preacher and bring salvation to the masses – at least, to the handful that actually manage to show up on Sunday morning. He’s trying his best, but a predilection for booze and constant rumors about his criminal past don’t exactly make him the shining example of Godliness, and every morning he finds himself fighting the urge to give up – especially when the temptations of his former life come knocking in the form of his ex-girlfriend, Tulip (Ruth Negga).
But then something miraculous happens, and Jesse finds himself imbued with an incredible power. Suddenly, his words carry more weight than they ever have before, his parishioners are listening with rapt attention, hanging on every word – and sometimes taking those words a bit too seriously. Could it be possible for Jesse to restore faith to the town of Annville, bringing its citizens back to the glory of the Lord?
One of the most interesting creative choices by Rogen and Goldberg is the decision to slow things down so drastically – in the comics, Jesse has already left Annville behind to embark on a much bigger mission, and we never really get a sense of his relationship to the town or its people. In that regard, the first season of Preacher almost feels like something of a prequel, filling in the narrative blanks and allowing time for its characters to develop before all Hell breaks loose – literally.
That’s not to say that events from the comic series won’t be popping up during the first season – they just might not happen in quite the same way that fans remember. Earlier this year, Rogen told reporters “We want fans who love the comic to get everything they want, but to also make some new twists and turns,” and the first four episodes of Preacher strike a nice balance between fan service and genuine surprises. Debaucherous Irishman Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun) is introduced to Jesse – and the audience – in a wildly different manner that will likely be a highlight of the premiere episode for many viewers, and Tulip’s grand entrance is also exceptionally well-crafted.
But as memorable as our protagonists might be, the series also boasts a solid lineup of supporting characters: there’s Hugo Root (W. Earl Brown), the town’s redneck Sheriff, and his disfigured yet lovable son Eugene (Ian Colletti); Donny (Derek Wilson), a Civil War re-enactor with a horrific mean streak; and Odin Quincannon (Jackie Earle Haley), a wealthy businessman who owns the local meat-packing plant and controls the town’s power supply. Everyone has a part to play in the larger story – some big, some small, but none of them unimportant.
But no matter how much action, quirkiness and downright insanity Preacher may offer – and trust me, there’s plenty of that on the menu, and I’ve only seen the first four episodes – the show just wouldn’t work without the always-charismatic Cooper, giving a soulful and earnest performance as Annville’s conflicted man of faith. The versatile actor has been stealing scenes for years in everything from Need for Speed to Marvel’s Agent Carter, and it’s an absolute joy watching him take center stage here.
My favorite moment of the premiere episode comes during a barroom brawl – as Jesse ducks between punches before throwing a few of his own, we get a brief slow-motion shot of him smirking to himself, ever so slightly. Not only does this tell us everything we need to know about Jesse Custer, but it also gives us some insight into how Dominic Cooper must feel about his new role. Just like his fictional counterpart, it seems he’s found his calling.