REVIEW: Preacher Picks Up the Pace, But Doesn't Bother to Grow

NOTE: This spoiler-free review of Preacher Season 4 is based on a screening of the first two episodes.

AMC’s adaptation of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s legendary Vertigo Comics series, Preacher has always been a mixed bag, at best. The show often scrapes the edge of greatness, but never quite reaches the quality for which it so obviously strives. As the series marches into its fourth and final season, the problems that have plagued it from the start are still as prevalent as they ever were, but when Preacher throws caution to the wind and leans into the surreal madness from the source material, it sinks its hooks into the audience.

However, just about every compelling moment Preacher offers is almost immediately undercut by something juvenile, vulgar or outright silly. It’s almost as if the show doesn’t want us to get invested. It keeps viewers at a distance, even into its fourth season. One of the prime examples of this sort of back and forth is Herr Starr, wonderfully portrayed by Pip Torrens. Early in the new season, Starr suffers another bout of mutilation (no spoilers) and he handles it in one of the weirdest and off-putting manners ever seen on television. It’s a moment that might make audiences simultaneously guffaw and gag; you’ll know it when it happens.

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The high concept behind Preacher's story is inherently controversial, as it upends dogmatic teachings and portrays several religious faiths as intrinsically abhorrent and manipulative. But that was always part of the fun of the source material. Ennis and Dillon’s original series had punk rock swagger to spare and a devil may care attitude about the insanity on the page, but it never disregarded the plotting at the expensive of presenting well-rounded characters. Even such a villainous troglodyte like Herr Starr gets some levity in on the page. He is clearly insane, and by the end of the comic, he has lost any and all touch with reality, but we were right along with him on his descent. We get why he does the things he does, even if we don’t agree with them.

The character connection just isn’t there. And, reflecting on the previous three seasons, it never was there to begin with. And it goes beyond Starr. If you would have told us that one of the least-likable characters in a Preacher adaptation would be the titular lead, we would not have believed you, but there’s no denying it: Preacher has a Jesse issue.

As the fourth season tackles one of the best story arcs from the comics, it's difficult to identify with, let alone root for, the titular protagonist. This is to no fault of Dominic Cooper, who has all the charisma and swagger one would need to inhabit Jesse Custer. The show, however, just keeps making us dislike him at every turn. Jesse Custer is not the ethically ambiguous antihero who stands up for the little guy on AMC’s Preacher. No. This Jesse is a straight-up asshole.

RELATED: Preacher Season 4 First-Look Photos Tease the Beginning of the End

Preacher, however, is not without its merits. The first two episodes of Season 4, provided for review, cover quite a bit of ground. In less than two hours, the series does a better job of setting the stage for the grand finale than most shows do over the course of an entire season. While there aren’t any massive narrative leaps, there are some surprises for viewers not familiar with the source material. The performances, even when they go against character ethos, are universally great. Ruth Negga as Tulip is impossible to ignore. Everything from her sharp cadence to her cool line delivery makes Tulip the star of any scene she’s in. The same can almost be said for Joe Gilgun as the hedonistic vampire Cassidy, who is equally captivating, but for differ net reasons. Cassidy is cool in his own weird way, but the choices he makes create a lot of turmoil and drama for the people who are supposed to be dearest to him.

Preacher Season 4 starts strong, but it can’t escape the snare of mediocrity, no matter how much craziness it throws our way. And while the show is rarely subjectively bad, it continues to have issues with tone and characterizations. The performances are almost enough to keep things afloat, but it’s the surreal narratives that keep Preacher from being forgettable.

Returning for its fourth and final season on Sunday, Aug. 4, AMC's Preacher stars Dominic Cooper as Jesse Custer, Ruth Negga as Tulip and Joe Gilgun as Cassidy the Vampire, Pip Torrens as Herr Starr, Malcolm Barrett as Hoover and Julie Ann Emery as Featherstone.

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