by ETHAN PETERSON
creators Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg & Sam Caitlin
It sounds like the setup for a twisted joke. Two Jews make a television show about Jesus Christ. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, when they are not driving the people in neighboring offices to insanity through the odiferous smell of their pot smoking, did not exactly pick up the Bible before making Preacher. If they did, it certainly was not the New Testament.
The graphic novel Preacher was about as knowledgeable about America as Seth Rogen is about the Gospel of Matthew. Preacher was one of many works by European writers attempting to depict what was happening in the country in the world producing most of the world’s visual media. By caricaturing America in the same way America did to them, writers like Ennis, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman levelled the playing field.
The graphic novel Preacher isn’t really offensive in its rampant violence, which seems basically tame now, or its view of Christianity, which is more a silly appreciation than actual critique. Preacher‘s broader caricatures are harsh parodies of people in the American south, all easy targets.
Not being native to Texas, writer Garth Ennis ran out of jokes about the region and Preacher turned into a pretty serious story about what a man does when he loses faith and how he acts when he regains it, if he ever does. Of course it does not really matter if you pray to God if he does not really exist. In the world of Preacher, he does, but he is not the only one of his kind. Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) is the protagonist and titular character, whose interaction with an angel-demon hybrid gives him the power of command.
Cooper is a tiny man, but this only adds to his considerable charm, since he has to find a way to impress us as a person without using his physique or literal momentum. The first fight scene in Preacher occurs after Jesse encourages a local woman to file a complaint against her husband. It turns out the abuse of the wife is at her own request (!), and instead of apologizing, Jesse breaks the man’s arm and beats up his friends. This outcome adds to the general sense that the main characters in Preacher may not exactly be the most God-fearing folks.
Take Jesse’s ex-girlfriend Tulip (Ruth Negga). I remember her being so much more likable in the comic, where she wasn’t explaining what a sterling examplar of womanhood she is all the time. In the pilot episode of Preacher, she builds a bazooka with a couple of children out of soup cans. It’s completely unclear why this should make her sympathetic; in fact she would be the most monstrous character on this show if it were not for Jesse’s vampire friend Cassidy.
The long Cassidy sections were the worst part of the comic, and yet their utter lack of narrative seriousness was a welcome relief from Garth Ennis’ at times dreary tone. We learn Cassidy is undead very early on. This revelation would have been far better somewhere down the line — it means nothing when Preacher begins, and it has been approximated so many times in the last twenty years.
I figured Rogen and Goldberg would focus on what Preacher actually does do well, which is a stylized form of violence which at times and in certain lights resembles prayer. It takes real skill to make action so seamless it comes across in a delightful space between accuracy of purpose and choreography, and that is missing in AMC’s Preacher. Rogen and Goldberg’s take on Preacher remains entertaining because the subject matter and setting are still quite unique, but so far the killing takes a serious backseat to the large, slowish characterization. It is a welcome upending — more Sydney Pollack than Quentin Tarantino.
The most chaotic moments of Preacher have Rogen and Goldberg overmatched, since they do not know where to put the camera and it feels like they are recreating fights they’ve seen before. They have replaced that stylized violence with an actual understanding of these characters. Despite their inadequacies, you can really feel the world of Preacher is something they have thought about more deeply than Ennis ever did, and it is wonderful to see the world of the graphic novel find more stable roots in the drama of more realistic human lives.
Ethan Peterson is the senior contributor to This Recording. He last wrote in these pages about Julian Fellowes’ Doctor Thorne.
“What Do You Want With My Heart” – These United States (mp3)
“One You Believe” – These United States (mp3)