***Spoiler Warning: Spoilers for Preacher‘s pilot episode follow. Spoilers***
Pilot episodes for television series are tricky business. What is essentially filmed as a proof of concept for network executives is also supposed to sell the masses in case the show is picked up for a full run. There’s so much world building and rough character outlining in a series premiere that there’s often no time to get a sense of how the show is really going to feel.
There are exceptions to this, obviously and the latest maverick from pilot conventional wisdom is AMC’s Preacher, which revealed itself in a wonderfully moody and often profanely funny fashion on Sunday night.
It helps that the source material, the Garth Ennis graphic novel series of the same name, is a rich mine to pull from. However, it’s another thing to put together a cast and a script and assemble it with little to no rough edges, which is exactly what Preacher did.
From its opening scenes, Anvil, Texas feels like the kind of dusty, windswept place that God forgot. Dominic Cooper inhabits the titular preacher Jesse Custer like a perfectly broken-in pair of boots. Jesse has a hole in his soul that has only grown, following a misspent youth doing wrong, despite making a dying promise to his father to do right. He’s returned to hometown to fill his father’s role of preacher to a tiny congregation in a country chapel on a hill and mend the broken promise.
For much of the episode, Jesse tends to his flock out of obligation rather than a calling. He speaks in parables and platitudes after hearing their problems, but not always really listening to them. Jesse is without faith and as broken down as the air conditioner in his church. So when a young parishioner asks Jesse to draw from his violent past and hurt his abusive father, Jesse starts to spiral.
That version of Jesse is placed against a backdrop of a redneck small Texas town that is kicking and screaming against moving into the modern world, as is evidenced by the mini-riot when the school mascot of the “Savages” is replaced by the more benign and only slight less racist “Pedro the Prairie Dog.”
Fortunately, Preacher isn’t all about meditations on amber hillsides and sepia-toned skies, with people like Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg involved in the production, there’s bound to be some energy, comedy and exploding people.
The second-best running gag of the episode (the messages on the church’s sign is the best) is a force from beyond the stars lands on Earth and inhabits the bodies of religious leaders around the globe. No one Spoiler: (Including, Tom Cruise, who explodes at a Scientology gathering) is able to contain this force and explode in a hail of blood and brains.
The arrival of the characters Tulip and Cassidy also liven up sleepy little Anvil and their introductions inject all kinds of energy into the episode. Tulip (Ruth Negga) was a running mate and romantic partner of Jesse’s during his wild days, while Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun) is an Irish vampire who literally drops into town.
Tulip is a force of nature herself. She wins an in-car fight through a Kansas cornfield before making an arts-and-crafts bazooka with a couple of farm kids from empty cans, their daddy’s moonshine and toy soldiers. The fight is frenetic and well-choreographed. Negga’s performance with the kids is sparkling and just as energized – Tulip knows who she is and does not apologize.
We meet Cassidy just before he foils an ambush by some Christian zealots on a private jet. It’s another bloody fight in tight quarters that’s executed brilliantly to jaunty swing music. Cassidy makes his escape by filling a whiskey bottle with some blood and jumping from the jet with only an umbrella. He literally has to pull himself together after landing with a splat with the help of a too curious cow.
The three forces converge in Jesse’s life when he reaches a low point. Cassidy walks into the bar shortly before Jesse visits some wrath on the boy’s abusive father in a fight scene that is quick to the viewer but is slow and rote from Jesse’s perspective. After cooling his heels in the county lockup, Jesse is at his wit’s end. Siting in the dark of his chapel, he gives God an ultimatum: Forgive him for the sins of his past and lighten his burden. Feeling no immediate change, Jesse decides to move on. That’s when things take a turn.
The force that has been blowing up ministers across the world finds Jesse, fills the hole in his being and knocks him out for three days. Jesse rises on his own Easter Sunday, at first determined to announce his resignation to the flock from the pulpit that morning.
Before entering the church, Jesse speaks the same platitudes to a parishioner who has been bugging him about his mother harassing him via the telephone – be brave, tell the truth and open your heart to her. That man turns on his heel and heads to his car.
The new spirit inside of Jesse makes him rededicate himself to serving the weak and helpless instead of quitting. That man with the problematic mother follows Jesse’s orders to the letter, including tearing his own heart of out his chest and presenting it to his mother. The episode closes with a pair of mystery men, who have been following this strange spirit across the globe striding up the lane to that dusty chapel in West Texas.
This was not an average series premiere and AMC might just have something magical on its hands. No matter the concerns about the involvement with Rogen and Goldberg, this was a well-crafted premiere filled with the right mixture of introspection and energy that could appeal to a wide audience. The setting was filmed in a lush way and each frame is packed with information and Easter eggs from the comic. In such a sort amount of time, it makes you grow attached to this place, these characters and makes you eager to see what will happen to them next.
The premiere will re-air May 29 before the series picks up again June 5 on AMC.