And… off we go!
After 20 years, a long parade of directors and nonstop scrutiny from hardcore fans, the long-awaited live-action adaptation of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s seminal Vertigo series, Preacher has officially been released onto an unsuspecting public. If you had told me five years ago that the creative team to finally crack the code of this seemingly “unfilmable” property would be the writers/producers behind Superbad and Pineapple Express, well—in all honestly—my pretentious, college-age self would have obnoxiously demanded to know how they were allowed anywhere near a comic book adaptation, after the underwhelming Green Hornet. And, yet, here we are. Surely all those who saw Rogen’s name attached and came expecting yet another raunchy stoner comedy were no doubt in for a nasty (if hopefully pleasant) surprise. Though the pilot deviates from the original text in fairly significant ways, it’s clear that Rogen, Goldberg and showrunner Sam Catlin have attempted to capture the spirit of the comic as best they can. In that regard, mission accomplished.
Now that viewers are done picking their jaws off the floor, it’s time to take a look at some of the most powerful and crazy moments of the show’s phenomenal pilot.
Though revealed earlier this week when AMC released the first few minutes of the pilot online, the opening in the church in an unnamed African country, perfectly embodies the tone of the show. What at first seems to be dramatic and even a bit frightening, quickly devolves into a shocking, hilarious gorefest. This exploding religious leader motif also sets up one of the pilot’s best, most subversive jokes (see below). Bonus points for hinting at the show’s cosmic reach by opening the episode with a shot of space that looks as though it’s been filtered through an ‘80s educational video.
You wanted violence and cool action? Directors Rogen and Goldberg have that in spades, with each major character given their own unique fight sequence. First up is Cassidy, who finds himself trapped in a luxury airplane with a bunch of people who want him dead. Pulling a Jackie Chan, the vampire uses all manner of available objects (bottles, trays, etc.) as weapons. The real button is when he impales one attacker with a champagne bottle and uses it to pump out some blood for later use. Next up is Tulip, who we get our first look at during a quite dramatic flashback, wherein she is in the midst of a brawl in the back of a speeding car as it careens through a cornfield (soundtracked by Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”). Pinning her attacker down, Tulip delivers a memorable deathblow via an ear of corn. Finally, there’s Jesse’s bar fight with Donnie and his cronies. While not as elaborate as the other two, this particular set piece is by far the most dramatically satisfying, given that the episode has built Donnie up to be the worst kind of abusive, vile redneck (that Jesse breaks Donnie’s arm while he’s still wearing a Confederate uniform from a Civil War reenactment is icing on the cake). The kicker, however, is the brief smile that flashes across Jesse’s face as he’s kicking ass, as if to say, “Yeah, this is what I really love doing.”
If Tulip’s opening action set piece establishes her as one badass chick, her subsequent scenes with the young farm children promptly made her one of my favorite new TV characters. How can you not love someone who complains to kids about their boy troubles while constructing a homemade bazooka? Given the character’s design in the book, Ruth Negga may not have been the obvious choice for the role, but dammit if she’s now making me wish comic Tulip were a little more like TV Tulip.
Following journeys to Africa and Russia, the entity saves its most high-profile target for last: noted movie star/Scientologist Tom Cruise. As with the religious leaders before him, Cruise’s encounter results in his spontaneous combustion, which is reported via a news broadcast. Considering the (alleged) strife that South Park caused when they made reference to Cruise’s unorthodox beliefs/rumored homosexuality in the infamous “Trapped in the Closet” episode, it’s a daring potshot to take. In aligning themselves with the comic’s anarchistic, “give no shits” sense of humor, Rogen and Goldberg seem determined to prove that a lucrative Hollywood career has not softened them. Moreover, when asked about this particular joke in a post-screening Q&A at WonderCon, showrunner Sam Catlin simply laughed and, citing advice from his legal counsel, wisely pleaded the fifth.
One of many, many, many challenges in adapting the Preacher comic lies in how to portray Arseface, the young, disfigured son of Sheriff Root who—per his nickname—has a face that resembles an ass. And while the comic version is almost cartoonishly grotesque, the show aims for a more downplayed version that confines the major deformities to the lower half of Eugene’s face. Kudos should be given to the make-up artists who do a great job at transforming actor Ian Colletti’s face without the use of CGI. More than just helping to pull off this technical marvel, however, Colletti’s portrayal brings real dimensions to the character. Despite the fact that his dialogue is all mumbles (with the aide of subtitles), Colletti manages to convey the damaged humanity beyond the prosthetics. When he talks about not wanting to go to church because he no longer hears God when he prays, it’s legitimately heartbreaking and demonstrates that the series has a lot more going on beneath than surface, than general shock value.
While not quite as visceral as when he commands an antagonist to “go fuck [himself]” in the comic, Jesse’s ill-conceived bit of advice to pathological mama’s boy Ted does effectively illustrate the gruesome downsides of his newfound abilities. The fact that this graphic sequence is juxtaposed with Jesse’s concluding sermon, in which he proclaims he’s here to “save” everyone, serves as a wonderful and rich bit of dark humor to end the episode on.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.