If comic book guy from The Simpsons could watch Preacher, it might be his favorite new show—or at least the one he most relishes nitpicking. Adapted from the cult-favorite ’90s comic by writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon, exec-produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Superbad), and developed by Sam Catlin (Breaking Bad), it’s not just aimed at hardcore fanboys and fangirls—it practically requires you to be one. Otherwise, you might not understand what’s happening. Keeping with the comic’s new-millennium anxiety, the series appears to be set in some recent, alternate-universe past, where Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), a preacher living in small-town Texas, gets possessed by a mysterious thing that gives him special powers. He sets out to find God—literally, God is a speaking character in the comic—with help from his hotheaded ex, Tulip (Ruth Negga), and his crazy Irish friend, Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun), who’s addicted to drugs, alcohol, and human blood. There are 5 million other characters—including a dumb sheriff (W. Earl Brown), prostitutes who work in the brothel where Tulip was raised, and a boy with a guilty conscience (Ian Colletti) who’s called “Arseface” for a reason—all introduced with little explanation. The camera follows them around the world, from Africa to Russia to someplace called Ratwater, at a kinetic pace, as if we already know where they’re going. It’s a mind-bendingly expansive show, packed into a tiny, 60-minute slot.
For that reason, it’s hard to judge how good it’s going to be—or even what it’s going to be—based only on the four episodes available for review. So far, the vivid characters are the best part. Even Arseface manages to be a tragic figure instead of a punchline. The directing is a marvelous celebration of genre films, from the pilot’s sci-fi B-movie opening, which zooms through outer space, to the chase scene in the fourth episode, where young women race through the woods in their underwear as if in an ’80s slasher movie. The dialogue is inventive: You don’t get shot, you get “Abe Lincolned.” And the violence is surprisingly original. Would you laugh if a vampire gored a man with a broken bottle, cranked off the bottle cap, and poured himself a tall glass of blood? If so, this is the show for you.
But Preacher’s biggest weakness is a big one. What might’ve been controversial in the comic—the sex, the language, the blasphemy—can feel like empty provocation. The prostitutes are so one-dimensional they don’t even get names, and their story is especially uninspired at a time when every other “edgy” drama has a brothel subplot. Worse, the central crisis of faith can be just as basic. Custer delivers what’s supposed to be a thought-provoking sermon, but it’s filled with truisms about how a 55-inch flat-screen TV won’t save your soul. Preacher’s critiques of Southern culture are so easy that they belong not in a comic book but in a cartoon where hillbillies are always shootin’ squirrels or drivin’ through cornfields. But oh, to watch an artfully choreographed knife fight in that cornfield, set to Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”! It’s spellbinding. Throughout Preacher, you’ll switch back and forth between rolling your eyes and not wanting to blink. “Boring is the worst thing a person could be,” Cassidy suggests to Custer. And that’s true for a TV show, too. B+