Against All Odds, Preacher Turns a ’90s Relic Into a Really Good Show
There have been stranger journeys to television than Preacher’s, but not many. The series comes after years of failed attempts to adapt Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s original Preacher comic book series; previous imaginary adaptations involved people like Kevin Smith and Sam Mendes, and one went so far as to cast James Marsden as the titular preacher, Jesse Custer. The tale of a Texas man hunting down God to make him answer for being the ultimate deadbeat dad, Preacher featured a vampire, incest subtext, more sacrilege than you can shake an inverted crucifix at, and a disconcerting number of jokes about men being raped (and those are all before executive producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg got hold of it).
In theory, a Preacher adaptation should be terrible. The Marvel and DC machines may still be moving forward on the strength of cape-and-boots spectacle and insane amounts of money, but it’s been the rare non-superhero comic adaptation to deliver on the promise of its source material. More than that, though, it is maybe the most ‘90s thing to ever ‘90s. If you boiled down Pulp Fiction, Ken Starr, and the collected discography of Rage Against the Machine to their Nesquik powder essence, then rehydrated them with Capri-Sun and a healthy spritzing of Y2K paranoia, you would get Preacher.
The comic often exists in a space where more is always better, an aesthetic that will be familiar to anyone who even glanced at the trailer for Batman v Superman. The characters’ anatomies are intensely and sharply delineated (Jesse has a rather mystical mullet)—not quite as aggressively masculine and faux-photorealistic as most superhero comics of the decade, but still in the same ballpark. The characters themselves endure inhuman amounts of punishment, as if to prove, repeatedly, that they are worthy of being the protagonists of the book. Maybe most annoyingly, they quip all the time, like everyone is sitting around Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment trying to one-up each other with verbal cruelty. (Cassidy, the Irish vampire with a cool haircut, has more than a few blood ties to Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)
More than that, though, Preacher embodies a hyper-violent comic vibe from the ’90s, one in which mutilation is a punchline rather than a tragedy. The series features several set pieces of mass murder, including a massacre at a Hollywood orgy, an extended hunting sequence by sadistic hicks, and a literal nuclear bomb going off. One of the major supporting characters goes by the name “Arseface,” thanks to the failed suicide-by-shotgun that left him with a, well, you know. By the time the series ends, the primary antagonist—besides God, that is—has been carved into something that resembles a pre-hot dog more than a human being.
All of this pokes fun at the characters who get sliced up, and the archetypes they inhabit. Gaucheness permeates Preacher, though any character who used the word “gauche” would almost certainly be gang-raped by mutant rednecks as a joke. It’s tongue-in-cheek (and the joke is often on the ideology being espoused), but like most successful parodies, Preacher’s success comes from the way it seduces people who find its ideas—funny along with people who genuinely buy into it. The noxious cloud produced by the oversaturation of this sort of “satirical” sadism has, unfortunately, failed to dissipate, creating a sense of unease that makes it harder to revisit the original work, or to pull off new work that works within the aesthetic. (Sorry, Fight Club.)
Where Preacher the comic is a generally fun read that’s still primarily a product of its time, Preacher the series is somehow very good as a prestige television show in 2016—Rogen and Goldberg have readily adapted to the form. The comic sprawls across America and dollops out characterization in concentrated bursts, but the series puts the entire cast in a single location for an extended period of time, forcing them to interact and develop distinct relationships (particularly Cassidy, who was largely isolated in the book but now has to contend with a bunch of people he can’t eat). The pilot establishes quite a few denizens of Annville, Texas, each with their own investment in the varied conflicts that make up the town—a high school mascot change, a family in crisis, the very presence of the preacher.
Jesse himself has been tweaked too. In the comic, he’s a broad-faced icon of American masculinity, simultaneously outdated and idealized. Dominic Cooper’s Jesse is an introverted wounded dog who doesn’t quite know who he is, and is bad at pretty much everything besides beating people up. In the tradition of Men on Television (especially Don Draper and Walter White, those other AMC antiheroes), he struggles with his desire to do the right thing instead of just doing it, violently.
The devil on his shoulder is his ex-girlfriend Tulip, played by the show’s breakout star, Ruth Negga. Tulip arrives fully-formed, wounded, angry, capable of taking care of children or stabbing someone with an ear of corn or gleefully constructing bazookas out of coffee cans. Her love for Jesse, she acknowledges, is an albatross stopping her from moving on with her life. The bazooka sequence, in which Tulip builds a weapon while teaching kids about love, encapsulates why Preacher is, against all odds, good: the TV show successfully maintains and updates a seemingly analog aesthetic, while grounding it in characters who are broadly sympathetic.
Loud, winking title cards in the pilot tell the viewer they’re watching events in Africa, or Texas, Los Angeles, outer space. The abrupt transitions are a way of using interconnectivity as a punchline through fine editing (“Look! Now we’re over here!”-style comic exhaustion) rather than a way of demonstrating an epic scope. (Babel this ain’t.) The fight scenes are effectively physical and punchy, glorying in the choreography of a fight itself without the attendant hyper-brutality of a Zack Snyder movie. (Cassidy’s most successful early kill involves stuffing a wine bottle into someone’s body and using it as a blood tap.)
Ruth Negga as Tulip O’Hare.
Pulling off a certain carefree absurdity of violence is hard, especially on a seemingly cosmic scale. Preacher the comic is a psychosexual carnival of jokes, and though it pays lip service to the humanity of some its characters, its world is at bottom a misanthropic dystopia where no one’s life is really worth much of anything. (Sinners, all of us.) This is part of the joke, but it’s being made ham-fistedly—literally, in the case of some of the comic’s more sexually adventurous characters—and so it occasionally spoils when encountered 15 years later.
Treating human bodies as rag dolls is a conscious creative decision that can have multiple rationales. For the best aspects of the ‘90s aesthetic, Preacher is aping, and for the show itself, it’s because everything is a big joke. Explosions, plane crashes, destruction by SWAT teams serving religious extremists—-all of these are things just kinda happen randomly, and sometimes they will be devastating, but it’s really not that big of a deal. It’s not reflexively a “good” or “bad” orientation to have toward the depiction of human flesh; taking a hardline stance on the question is the realm of the moralistic censor or slobbering fanboy. But balancing violence with occasional kindness, as Preacher the series does, takes skill. You have to know just when and how to reach for the coffee-can bazooka.