SPOILER WARNING: The following contains minor spoilers for the first four episodes of “Preacher.”
Twenty years after Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s iconoclastic Vertigo Comics series “Preacher” debuted, Jesse Custer and his misfits friends are coming to television, and they’re bringing all kinds of hell-raising with them. Shepherded by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (“Superbad,” “Neighbors,” “This is the End”), AMC’s latest series take a tale that’s long flustered filmmakers and transformed it into a fresh, thrilling and exhilaratingly irreverent show that mocks everything from the Washington Redskins, to Tom Cruise, and religion itself — all in the first four episodes.
Dominic Cooper (“Agent Carter’s” playboy Howard Stark) stars as titular preacher Jesse Custer, who’s turned away from a life of crime to fulfill his father’s dying wish that he be a “good guy.” But how to be a good guy in a ratwater town full of rednecks, pedophiles, drunks and prostitutes? Pondering his place in God’s creation, Jesse is in the midst of a crisis of faith. As a dedicated brooder, this preacher isn’t much for talking off of the pulpit. Thankfully, his concerns come echoed out of puckered ghastly lips of a shotgun-blast-to-the-face survivor Eugene (Ian Colletti), better known to fans of the comic as Arseface.
In a clever deviation from the source material, Eugene is presented here as one of Jesse’s flock, endlessly chipper but painfully isolated. His Sheriff daddy (W. Earl Brown) treats the marred young man with indifference and disdain. Jesse — withdrawn and glum — is the closest thing Eugene has to a friend, setting up enticing new tangles to Ennis’s original narrative. But this is just one of the compelling changes Rogen and Goldberg have made.
The comic began with Custer already on the road, running from a town where he’s done more harm than burning metaphorical bridges. However, the show grounds itself in this festering community, spooling out tales of sin, and establishing crass characters like a cowardly mayor, a greedy industrialist, an abusive family man and a lecherous school bus driver. All are ripe for a bloody reckoning foreshadowed in “Preacher’s” explosive opening. There, a mysterious caterwauling comet rips into the heart of a spirited African priest with an outrageous outcome that not only sets up the horror-laced tone of the show’s comedy, but also cocks the Chekov’s Gun of this season.
After cutting down a string of would-be prophets, this yowling force nestles into Jesse’s doubting soul, reinvigorating his drive and giving him the power to command people to do whatever he says. But there’s some monkey’s paw tricks to it. Being too literal results in a macabre episode-ender that will have audiences gasping and guffawing. Other early attempts offer unnerving outcomes. Figuring out this power and its purpose will be a process, but helping Jesse on his journey is a pair of smiling sinners.
Introduced snorting cocaine and talking shit, energetic and garrulous English character actor Joseph Gilgun is perfectly cast as the Dublin-born vampire Cassidy. A wiry, pale live-wire, this fast-talking thrill-seeker busts heads, drinks blood, slings zingers, and relishes in debauchery to the point where he’s inventing toxic concoctions to develop unique and dizzying cocktails (insulation mixed with coolant, anyone?). Cassidy is all kinds of trouble, but so damn charismatic that it’s easy to see why Jesse — despite his desire to be good — can’t turn away from this delightful devil’s temptations of blackout drinking. Naturally, this leads to more violence and some “Evil Dead 2”-style laughs.
In many regards, Jesse, Cassidy and Eugene — from their looks to their initial personas — seem pulled full-body from the pages of Ennis’s comic, along with jet-black humor and the relishing of garishly graphic violence. But with Jesse’s former partner-in-crime/electric ex-girlfriend Tulip O’Hare, “Preacher” brought some major changes, and all for the better. The most obvious change is the race-bending of Tulip from a blond white-woman to a dark-curled woman of color. The casting of Ethiopian-Irish actress Ruth Negga stirred some early backlash. But Negga herself has shrugged this off, saying, “[Tulip] is just not blonde, but brown and has smaller boobs. It doesn’t change the essential nature of this person.” True. But the there was also a concerted effort to make Tulip a more complex character than she was presented before.
In the comics, Tulip was defined by her heartbreak over Jesse. Here, that’s simply one element of her character, rather than wounded being her dominant trait. As showrunner Sam Catlin told us at SXSW, “The idea was for Jesse and Cassidy and Tulip being a sort of Island of Misfit Toys, an unlikely triumvirate.” So, it was important for Tulip to feel just as headstrong, fiercely flawed and funny as her male colleagues. And here she is just that. Rather than at a botched murder attempt, “Preacher” introduces Tulip in the midst of a bonkers brawl. She’s fighting off two men at once, while tearing through a cornfield in a speeding car. Once they’re both dealt with, it’s time for a costume change, and a bit of deadly “arts and crafts,” meaning a DIY bazooka powered by homemade moonshine.
This new take on Tulip is a major part of what makes “Preacher” work, though the show might be occasionally perplexing to those who didn’t read the comics. It leaps around to different characters and locations, setting up threads that won’t be explored for many scenes or several episodes down the line. It’s with a similarly frenetic energy that “Preacher” bounds from one tone to the next, one moment wallowing in a soul-searching bit of reflection, the next knee-deep in blood-soaked slapstick. Even Cassidy and Jesse can feel jarring, being such sharp foils in intention and energy. But Negga somehow manages to smooth out a lot of these rough edges.
Alternately mournful and menacing, Cooper grounds the show’s drama. Enviably reckless, Gilgun is the main source of comic relief, playing Cassidy as a lovable loose cannon. But of the three, Negga gets the most range. One moment, she’s sultry in leather with a dangerous smirk, seducing Jesse to return to his crooked roots. The next she’s a fearsome firebrand scolding a brothel full of morons about their wicked ways. Then just like that, she’s landing one-liners and conning a cop with her glorious gift of gab, before switching to real-talk mode, tenderly advising Jesse like the old friend she is.
Negga is a force of nature, commanding full attention in every frame. And while the wonky but wild and weird “Preacher” gets into the game, this mesmerizing, gun-toting Tulip is much more than Jesse’s hurt ex. She’s the show’s MVP.
“Preacher” premieres Sunday, May 22 on AMC.
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