A brush-strewn, beige stretch of New Mexico desert surrounds Preacher‘s set, a place removed enough from nearby Albuquerque to deter any would-be crashers, and desolate enough to double for the drama’s fictional West Texas town of Annville. It is upon these rocks that the show’s church, All Saints’ Congregational, is built. Inside, it’s empty and cool, a place for crew members and extras to enjoy a respite from the unrelenting sun and dry atmosphere.
Last month, AMC invited a select group of journalists on set to interview stars Dominic Cooper, Ruth Negga, and Joseph Gilgun about the upcoming drama, a project based on a popular comic book series that debuted in 1995 and was trapped in development purgatory for nearly two decades.
Debuting Sunday, May 22 at 10 pm (before it moves to its regular 9 pm timeslot on Sunday, June 5), Preacher has the potential to be cable’s next great action franchise. First, though, it has to pass muster with viewers. Based on everything we saw on location and heard from the show’s stars and producers during several recent interviews, here are five reasons we can have faith in AMC’s Preacher.
Good news for anyone who feels oversaturated with masked heroes: Preacher has none of these elements. On the other hand, if you’re a religious person, avert thine eyes – the comic book title upon which the series is based happens to be riddled with unapologetic blasphemy. When we first meet the show’s titular hero, Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), he’s a bumbling pastor presiding over a tiny flock that barely respects him. In one of the pilot’s funnier running jokes, someone keeps altering the inspirational quotes on the sign outside of the church into crass one-liners.
Jesse’s town, Annville, is small enough that everyone knows each other, so there’s plenty of gossip about their preacher’s dark past. Part of that unsavory history comes back to haunt him in the form of his scorned and scornful ex-girlfriend Tulip (Ruth Negga). But he also crosses paths with an Irish stranger named Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun), who is as easygoing, happy, and faithless as Jesse is sullen.
That is, until one night when a mysterious force jumps into Jesse’s body. Soon after, the preacher discovers that he can exert influence over any being that hears his words, although at first he struggles to harness that power.
“He’s desperate to be good; he’s desperate to help these people. It’s all from a genuine good place,” Cooper said. “But we often can’t hide the true monster that’s kind of just lying underneath the skin.”
Somewhere along the line, Preacher may transform into a journey. The first issues of the comic take the main characters on a road trip to cities around the United States and to Heaven – a cumbersome and potentially pricey proposition for any new series.
As such, the pilot refrains from being overly loyal to the plot structure established on the page. Most of season one’s action stays put in Annville.
“We end where the comic starts,” Cooper explained. “And that’s so necessary… You need to get to know characters. The shows that are flawed and haven’t continued are when, no matter how good they’ve been, there’s a chaos of people who we can’t, as an audience, get to know or understand and therefore care about.
“What we have done is established the roots of these people,” he continued. “I’m sure we’ll end up in some [season], down the road, in Hell somewhere or maybe in Heaven. It will become more and more extraordinary. But I think it has to be embedded in something, at the moment, that people can grasp.”
A certain faction of every comic title’s fanbase will inevitably take issue with deviations from the original story. It’s usually a small subset but, as witnessed in the social media protests over John Boyega being cast as a black Stormtrooper in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it can be loud and ignorant. As such, one can expect a few of these purists to find fault in the casting of Negga, an Ethiopian-Irish actress playing Tulip, a hard-boiled Texas woman drawn as a Caucasian blonde in the comics. Those complaints are not only born of ignorance but a failure to appreciate the electricity that Negga brings to the role. She’s a perfect match for Cooper’s tormented hero, and she holds her own with Gilgun’s delightfully anarchic Cassidy at every turn.
“The great thing that’s happening now is that comic books and action movies are leading the way, at the moment, in terms of diversifying the characters,” Negga said in an exclusive interview conducted earlier this year. “We need to see a world that reflects that. It doesn’t make sense not to, you know that I mean?”
And in response to anyone who has a problem with her playing Tulip: “F–k them. It’s the march of time, moving forward. It’s late enough that it’s happened. And I just don’t have any time for that nonsense.”
Bursting with hyper-kinetic fight choreography and drowning in blood, Preacher appears to be actively competing for the title of TV’s Goriest Show. Considering it airs on the same network as The Walking Dead, that’s saying something. Although the average AMC viewer likely has a strong stomach for flesh being ripped from bone and arcs of arterial spray, some may be thrown by the premiere’s lighthearted treatment of gore and campy barbarity.
Negga, though, isn’t concerned. “I can’t bear blood and gore and violence,” she said during the set visit. “But when I watched the pilot and some of the fight scenes, it’s just so beautifully choreographed, and there’s an edge of humor there that takes it out of the real world. I never feel uncomfortable with it, because it’s really tongue-in-cheek.”
Underneath all of that simmers an ongoing debate about whether an interventionist deity is watching over us, and whether it makes sense to lean on that idea for strength and comfort.
“I think you are on very dangerous ground when you do start to have an opinion about religion in what is essentially a very religious country,” Cooper said. “What [the show] does bring up is that anyone’s interpretation of this God is acceptable and fair, no matter how you perceive it or what your idea of it is. It’s up to you.”
News of a popular comic being adapted into a film often elicits a mixture of elation and dread in passionate fans. What are comics and graphic novels, after all, if not story boards for amazing films? That’s part of the reason they’re appealing as film subjects: they have built in audiences already, and the mythologies and set and costume designs are more or less established.
Even so, there are many more disappointing comic book movies and TV series than there are great ones. Preacher’s executive producers, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and showrunner Sam Catlin know this. Rogen and Goldberg also co-directed the pilot, and stressed that they were huge fans of the source material above all else, which makes all the difference.
“I love every element of the comic book. I don’t want to lose anything. And when things get lost, I get scared about it,” Rogen told a group of critics at a press conference held in January. “The show is being created by people who have both loved it for years and years and years and years… I don’t want to ruin my favorite comic!”
He’s not the only one who’s concerned. “I don’t want to let the fans down. That’s just terrifying,” Gilgun said during the set visit. “In fact, that frightens me more than the idea of letting Evan and Sam down… because they’ve invested so much time into this s–t. I know what it’s like to be a fan of something. We all know. And how loyal you are… and that it means a lot to people.”
That level of concern and quavering fear resulted in a pilot that’s gory, insightful, violent, hilarious, haunting, and inspiring in equal measure. And it demonstrates the difference between watching a comic book story awkwardly jammed into a series construct by TV producers, and true aficionados using the open-ended nature of television to do justice to a complex tale.
There’s a reason a number of well-known directors and producers — including Sam Mendes, Kevin Smith, Mark Steven Johnson, and Howard Deutsch — have attempted to bring Preacher to life as a film or series, only to drop the project. Even HBO attached itself at one point, before letting it go. Preacher’s central story is guaranteed to ruffle a few feathers. But as conservative and religious as American culture can be, the average entertainment consumer’s sensibility has calloused up a bit since Ennis and Dillon first introduced readers to Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy.
The inked work came of age during the era when Quentin Tarantino made highly stylized extreme violence fashionable in cinema, spawning dozens of bullet-riddled crime films that made viewers root for dark anti-heroes.
That same era saw the rise of DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint, home to Preacher and other titles (including Lucifer, now a Fox series ) considered edgier and more adult-themed than adherents to Comics Code Authority guidelines – rules set up to allow publishers such as DC to self-regulate content in their titles — would allow.
Back then, Preacher made waves by skewering the common ideas surrounding blind faith and religiosity, and Ennis relished in weaving blasphemous content throughout the 66-issue main story.
Jump forward two decades: The CCA is kaput. Tarantino is a mainstream auteur director. And one of the most popular titles on television is AMC’s The Walking Dead — a series that, at one point, showed its heroes brutally butchering of a group of cannibals in a church.
It makes perfect sense, then, that AMC also serves as Preacher’s Earthly home.
“If we have one mantra,” Rogen said, “it’s make something that is a good TV show, first and foremost, and something that if you are a fan of the comic, you love and truly don’t know what to expect at the same time.”
Preacher premieres this Sunday, May 22 at 10 p.m. on AMC; read reviews here.
Melanie McFarland is a Seattle-based TV critic and an executive member of the Television Critics Association. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision