Monday, May 16, 2016


So. I kind of hated the Preacher pilot.

I remember reading and enjoying Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's comic book series upon which the show is based when I was in my twenties. I also remember looking back on them a few years ago and just thinking that, if I read them now, I would likely not have gone past the first volume.

I'm not sure if it's just me, or if it's the material, or a little of both, but Preacher as a comic -- and even moreso Preacher as a TV series -- feels like a perfect example of something that's been driving me crazy in comics and their adaptations of late: unceasing, nihilistic violence masquerading as maturity.

The first time I really remember thinking, about this issue was in The Walking Dead #100, which introduced Negan (and was therefore the basis for the TV series' Season Six finale, the most recent episode that aired). Negan curses like a sailor, picks out one of the beloved members of the regular cast, and refers to him by ethnic slurs while brutally beating him to death.

It didn't feel "mature" to me -- it felt like a 13-year-old boy's idea of what "mature" should be.

I had similar feelings about Marvel's Daredevil and Jessica Jones -- beautifully shot and well-acted, but ultimately not very satisfying because they just felt dark for dark's sake.
This is, of course, going to sound funny coming from me -- the guy who unabashedly loved Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. But it felt like the darkness in that film served a purpose, rather than the darkness being an end unto itself.

Preacher, which appealed to me as a younger man, somehow feels out of touch with my older, more mature (?) or at least mellow sensibilities. So many of the jokes just didn't work for me anymore; they felt less like creative irreverence and more like that guy on Facebook who tries to show how clever he is by posting a thousand atheist memes.

That feeling is exaggerated in AMC's Preacher, in which the research and interest in scripture at least int he abstract has been replaced by contempt and quips. As with Kevin Smith's Dogma, so much of what made Preacher work in the first place was the fact that it felt as though Ennis and Dillon fundamentally understood Christianity, its history, its appeal and its shortcomings. The TV version doesn't single out Christianity in the same way as the comics -- and while that might feel safe from a network point of view, it robs the work of some of what it actually had to say. As much as I feel like I had grown out of the comics a bit, Ennis and Dillon definitely had a point of view, and what they had to say had at least some merit. Here, that's all tossed out in favor of constructing something that's funnier and less offensive to the kind of people who are resistant to critical thinking.
Ironically, in the first ten or so minutes of the pilot, Jesse himself take a cheap shot at the kind of person the show seems determined to appeal to.

Unfortunately, a real weak link in the pilot is Ruth Negga's Tulip.

I say unfortunately, because there's inevitably going to be a lot of hate directed at her for being a woman of color in this show -- and for having been cast in a role which, in the comics, was a white one. Negga's casting isn't the problem; her performance is. If there's one person in Preacher I'd like to have seen blow me away, it's Negga (just to spite the kind of people who will bitch about casting her to start with). She's no better here than she was in Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., though -- which is to say she's pretty bad. There's really nothing compelling about her performance at all, and the one-dimensional "troublemaking tomboy" thing she has going on makes me wonder whether Tulip in the comics would turn out to be less interesting than I remembered on a re-read. And Carly Simon is definitely a big step down from The Clash, in terms of Tulip's (in this case post-)shower music.

Dominic Cooper is strong as Jesse, and he's even got some material to work with -- something you can't say about Negga -- but he's given a sense of direction and character too late in the game, and by the time I started to feel invested, I was already one step out the proverbial door. His accent is the least-bad of the bunch, too, so hats off to that -- although in the spirit of AMC's other big comics adaptation The Walking Dead, don't expect just about anybody to sound like an actual human from the South would sound.

Cassidy (Joe Gilgun) is...extremely loyal to the comics.

That's about the nicest thing I could say about the bizarre, cartoonish, buffoonish performance that Gilgun turns in. It's exactly what it's supposed to be, and it's no fault at all of his that I haven't got a single bit of patience for it.

None of the rest of the cast is all that memorable. Lucy Griffiths turns in a performance that's a modicum better than she gave in Constantine, but she's given far less to do here than she was there and it's not clear that she'll be much of a player in the show. Certainly the fact that the first episode plays out so differently here than in the comics will keep comics readers on our toes: the road trip element is not present (or at least not right away), as Jesse not only doesn't accidentally kill his whole congregation, but remains in Annville to preach. That decision means there is the potential for recurring or regular characters who weren't in the comics, and to explore Jesse's relationship to his congregation and his hometown in a more linear way without flashbacks or what-have-you.

Besides Griffiths, who plays a loyal-to-her-own-detriment congregant who works for the church, the pilot introduces a handful of stock characters who may or may not play significant roles in the first season: there's the wife beater and his mousy victim; and the batch of rednecks who, in this case, are Civil War re-enactors so that Jesse gets to literally beat up on some guys dressed as Confederate soldiers (proving that executive producer/director Seth Rogen learned nothing from The Interview about offending political groups with a cult-like bent).

The look and feel of the pilot is that it's meant to be taken seriously, but there are just too many silly ideas and images being thrown around for that. Meanwhile, the humor itself isn't quite as dark as the show seems to want us to think it is, plucking low-hanging fruit like making fools out of rednecks and Tom Cruise. It seems convinced that this is biting social commentary when, in fact, it feels like exactly the lazy and hacky stabs at comedy that so many fans dreaded when Seth Rogen and Evan Golderg were announced as writer/directors.

Aside from a show that takes no real stance on the religious elements in a show called Preacher, we get a pilot which takes the moral ambiguity out of your "morally ambiguous" lead by having his mid-episode fight happen with a wife beater and a bunch of guys wearing Confederate flags, and which tones down Arseface to such an extent that he's more surreal than disturbing. Its shock-and-awe moments come from gore and comical ultraviolence -- and while the source material isn't without its fair share of that, it always felt like it had something to say. The show just...doesn't.

Preacher is a mess of a show that can't decide what its tone should be, and somehow manages to be both overly dark and violent, and lacking in any kind of meaningful subversiveness. Instead, we get bland, canned bad-boy attitude touting itself as subversive. And no real reason to watch beyond the pilot.