AMC’s new originals series Preacher, based on the comic series of the same name, opens in a church in Africa. Which of the 54 countries in Africa, you ask? Stop asking questions! During his sermon, the man behind the pulpit is suddenly hit by a ball of energy, and for a moment, his congregation believes he’s a prophet. Then he explodes, splattering them all with ketchup-red blood.
The scene sets the tone for the rest of the pilot, though perhaps not in the way it’s meant to. Much like the choice to use “Africa” as a setting, Preacher is overly broad and makes me slightly uncomfortable. The cold open is followed by the introduction of Jesse Custer, a hard-drinking preacher in the West Texas town of Annville who can’t be bothered to bring every page of his sermon to church, much less memorize it. His only advice for the few remaining members of his congregation is “open your heart.” After services, Custer is approached by a young boy who asks him to hurt his abusive father. Cooper delivers a monologue about how violence can become a vicious cycle, and there’s a natural cut to a party on a luxury jet where all the guests are brutally murdered by an Irish vampire. You might think this was enough action for one pilot, but there’s a helicopter crash, a homemade bazooka, and a bar fight with Confederate re-enactors yet to come.
In short, Preacher is packed. But, the SXSW audience with whom I watched seemed game. More than game, in fact: a throwaway joke about Tom Cruise dying was met with raucous applause from the 1200-seat theatre. While my audience was effusive, I imagine Preacher will have trouble finding footing outside of a festival house packed with fans. If you lack the background to understand the inside jokes throughout, I doubt the pilot provides enough context to allow you to piece together the plot.
It’s possible the show’s myopia is a result of its long production process: executive producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg shared at the post-screening Q&A that they have been trying to adapt the comic since they first got any sort of sway in Hollywood. Their first development meeting, in fact, was held in a trailer while shooting Superbad. They initially conceived of it as a miniseries (this was hot off of Band of Brothers), and later as a superhero film trilogy. Then, said Rogen, “TV got awesome.” Spending nearly ten years developing a show necessarily means becoming very close to the material, and I wonder if Rogen and Goldberg are in a little too deep.
In theory, an episodic structure is probably the best venue for Preacher, since it allows writers to do a lot of plot and character development, but even its hour long pilot is overpacked. It also may have a problem with its action scenes if more experienced action directors aren’t at the helm: the plane fight scene is too confusingly shot to appreciate the fight choreography, and too short to establish anything beyond “this is badass!”.
While watching Preacher, it was hard for me to not draw comparisons to The Walking Dead, AMC’s other comic adaptation. While Dead sold itself to fans by touting its faith to the comics, it was totally accessible to non-readers. Despite having mixed feelings on both the comics and show as a whole, I think the Dead pilot is a triumph. It’s beautifully shot on 16mm and makes for an effective introduction to the comic’s world. Preacher struggles to find its footing, and is somehow both too broad and too specific in turns. I have a cursory sense of the characters after this pilot (Custer is a troubled anti-hero, Tulip is an unbalanced vigilante, the vampire is Irish) but very little interest in seeing what comes next.
Featured image courtesy of SXSW