Based on the cult comic book by writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon, Preacher pivots on a small-town man of the cloth’s discovery of a power to bend his congregation to his will. Inhabited by an unknown entity, Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) can speak to people and alter their course of action, giving them orders they sometimes follow to a disastrously literal degree. At one point, Jesse tells a man that he should “open his heart” to his domineering mother, and the latter does just that, spelling his guts with a butcher knife onto a table in his mother’s rest home; later, he instructs a potential pedophilic school bus driver to “forget” a girl that tempts him, partially erasing his memory in the process.
The premise has an obvious but promisingly nasty satirical hook, suggesting that religion is merely a means of emotionally blackmailing people into obedience—an impression confirmed by one of the show’s best sight gags, in which a church sign briefly reads “Free Jesus with store purchase.” But creators Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Sam Catlin rarely evince an interest in mining a satirical vein. What they’ve fashioned with this adaptation is a “hang out” series in which purposefully clichéd characters lounge about striking poses, stewing in their cool, genre-film-derived iconography. The showrunners value unoriginal attitude at the expense of plot, theme, and character, yielding a series in which stuff merely happens.
This Preacher is considerably tamer than its source material, but it’s nevertheless inordinately pleased with its own edginess. Jesse is an intentionally, ludicrously unconvincing preacher, a reformed assassin/bad boy who’s defined by his hip spiked hair, perfect one-week beard, and frequent smoking of cigarettes, which he does with a precisely cool, crooked posture that suggests he’s either perpetually modeling for a Marlboro ad or auditioning for a spot in the band Creed.
Jesse is frequently reminded of his past by an ex-girlfriend, Tulip (Ruth Negga), who’s defined primarily by her sass and broad Texan twang, and who wants him to run off with her for unsurprising reasons, though that doesn’t prevent the series from devoting an interminable amount of running time to revealing them. Pulling at Jesse’s other figurative sleeve, toward the good side of the Lord, is Emily (Lucy Griffiths), a requisitely bland widow devoted to resurrecting the Texas church over which Jesse ostensibly presides.
Preacher’s action sequences, inspired by Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films, are staged with occasional wit and flair, particularly a showdown involving a runaway chainsaw in Jesse’s church between Cassidy (Joe Gilgun), an Irish outlaw nursing a supernatural secret, and a pair of killers. There are a few beautifully evocative master shots of the western church that suggests Kill Bill: Vol. 2 by way of John Ford. But so pitifully little is at stake here.
The pilot, directed by Rogen and Goldberg, has some of the off-kilter energy that races through their features. But while those films are driven by unruly, chaotic spontaneity, by a willingness to abandon narrative for riffs and lurid punchlines that owe something to the inventive anarchy regularly achieved by Trey Parker and Matt Stone on South Park, Preacher’s serialized dramatic structure reins in Rogen and Goldberg’s impudent, free-associative instincts, though these sensibilities are just evident enough to undermine the plot’s momentum with smug, winking indifference. It’s the worst of both worlds.
The three episodes that follow are essentially more of the same. Jesse and Cassidy exchange theoretically badass quips, Emily and Tulip alternatingly lecture Jesse for opposing reasons, Jesse visits a few recurring characters, a variety of redneck stereotypes are indulged, and, eventually, something gory happens so as to perk the audience’s interest. The fourth episode finally establishes something resembling a season arc: A villain played by Jackie Earle Haley gradually assumes prominence, with the veteran’s underacting serving as a pointed relief from the mugging of the principle cast.
The final moments of this fourth episode even suggest a whiff of thematic purpose, pitting an ecologically indifferent meat-peaking entrepreneur against a preacher who’s grown so cynical with his purpose in the world that he’s brainwashing his flock rather than truly converting them. There’s potential weight to this conflict, particularly in a climate-imperiled world that’s about to potentially inherit an egomaniacal madman as a co-leader, but Preacher is more interested in offering smirks and squibs, detached from anything so square as lasting conviction in itself.