AMC’s ‘Preacher’ is worth an hour a week

Joe Gilgun as Cassidy in "Preacher" (Lewis Jacobs/Sony Pictures Televsion/AMC/TNS)

Wait, is heaven in space?

This is only one of the many questions you may have while watching an explosive new series about a small town facing some huge threats and the utterly persuasive power of religion.

Developed by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and “Breaking Bad” writer Sam Catlin, “Preacher” is AMC’s newest television adaptation of a comic book, based on the work of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon.

The titular preacher is Jesse Custer, a conflicted former criminal, who returns to his dusty, sin-filled hometown of Annville, Texas to become the local minister, a mantle left to him by his father. Jesse’s closest friends — a description that may be a bit strong — include Cassidy, a 119-year-old vampire who crash-landed in Annville while on the run from a neo-Christian cult, and Tulip O’Hare, a hired gun who grew up in a brothel and is looking for Jesse’s help with one last job. Jesse and O’Hare are longtime partners — in more ways than one.

Oh, and there’s a being from heaven inside Jesse who gives him the power of complete persuasion — an ability which borders on mind control. Jesse uses his new gifts and position to guide his conscience, and Annville’s, between good and evil, as obstacles and adversaries pop up around them.

“Preacher” is one of the shows that makes you wonder how every main character can manage to steal each scene. Dominic Cooper gives Jesse a weighted portrayal, constantly wavering between what he should do and what he can do.

Cassidy leans into his immortality by slinging booze, abusing drugs and getting into bar brawls, while actor Joe Gilgun leans into his character as a conniving, clever and blunt instrument of terror. Ruth Negga does great work with Tulip, even when there’s not much for her character to do. Tulip’s introduction is a deadly car wreck through a corn field that leads her to making homemade bombs with 10-year-olds — “Who likes arts and crafts?”

“Preacher” straddles depth of storytelling with a child’s version of cool, where everyone smokes, the world hides more than it shows and the bad guys get what they deserve — most of the time. The show also balances fun, thrills and gore nicely, with stunning action sequences offset by touching scenes with the town’s characters. This is especially true for the son of the town sheriff, the meat-smoothie-drinking Eugene, or Arseface, whose face is deformed from putting his father’s shotgun to his mouth.

In a way, watching the show is as if you were peeking behind the doors of a confessional. A homely suburban mom likes rough sex. A bus driver has an unhealthy obsession with a schoolgirl. An avid church-goer is constantly anxious about what his mother thinks of him.

Jesse exorcises — ahem, exercises — his newfound powers by opening the eyes of a coma patient, forcing the bus driver to forget his pedophilic thoughts, having Cassidy dance on one foot, and telling the sinner with mommy issues, Ted, to simply “open his heart.” This results in Ted driving to his mother’s retirement home and cutting out his own heart. That last terrifying accident remains a warning of the power and literality of Jesse’s new powers throughout the show.

But with great power comes a great chance that people will try to take that power away.
Shady organizations abound, whether it’s the “government agents” from Heaven who dread calls from upper management, the as-yet-unnamed vampire-hunting Christian fringe group or the vague Q. M. & P., owned by local business magnate Odin Quincannon.

Quincannon, wonderfully portrayed by the always-off-putting Jackie Earle Haley, often cruelly outshines the show’s Irish vampire with scenes in his office. Quincannon’s deranged eccentricities range from simply sitting at his desk listening to the dying sounds of animals in his meat factory to peeing, dead-eyed, on a rival “green” company’s pamphlet in front of the mayor.

Like a droning homily, “Preacher” may drag its feet at times, but that’s understandable given the rapid storylines of the comics. Co-creator Garth Ennis said as much to The Hollywood Reporter about the show’s approach to the story: “If you put the comic on the screen, you would use it up in a season and a half.”

But “Preacher” has given itself room to build up suspense while ancient threats lie in wait for upcoming seasons, and it’s better for doing so. It’s a black comedy draped over a supernatural thriller, and it’s just getting started.

In an entertainment landscape filled to the brim with zombies, vikings, zombie-vampires, ice-zombies and aliens, it’s saying something that to miss “Preacher” would be to miss one of the craziest shows on television.

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