[Note: Spoilers for the first season of Preacher.]
Creative sacrilege is the point of Preacher, AMC’s supernatural drama about a Texas clergyman (Dominic Cooper) with superpowers and a gabby vampire (Joseph Gilgun) as his sidekick. Adapted from a DC comic-book series with a cult following, Preacher blooms amid blasphemy. Its best scenes are its most outlandish, as when the bloodsucking Cassidy separates an angel’s arm at the shoulder with the chainsaw the seraph had been holding — all this in a church, no less — and the arm and the revving tool march down the aisle like a determined bride, ready to slice in half the passed-out-drunk pastor, Jesse Custer. The over-the-top, almost self-consciously clever irreverence of that scene is admirable, but also feels rather juvenile, as if it were imagined by a funny and inventive 15-year-old in a fit of vengeful rebellion.
Anger and misanthropy run deep in Preacher. On Sunday’s season finale, the show killed off an entire town, including Jesse’s church, with a methane (i.e., cow-fart) explosion. (They were not mourned.) It also dropped the fact that God is “missing” from heaven, with none of the angels aware of his whereabouts — a revelation that led Jesse to vow to find Him and possibly “kick [His] ass,” whatever that means. That sounds cool, I guess, maybe, if you can get on board with that kind of puerile subversion. For me, it just solidified my suspicion that Jesse’s rage at God is largely rage at his loving but inflexible dead father (Nathan Darrow) — figures who are supposed to provide unconditional love and serve as models for goodness in the world, but can’t.
In the same way that a Satanist is (sometimes way too literally) an upside-down kind of Christian — investing in the same Biblical mythology but choosing an alternate take on it — Preacher is a show in which you need to care enough about holiness in order to take delight in seeing it profaned. Watching Jesse’s love interest, Tulip (a fiery Ruth Negga), call God “the all-time, home-run king of promise-breakers” or the town’s businessman villain (Jackie Earle Haley) denounce the Lord as “the greatest lie ever told” offers little to someone who isn’t thrilled by these impieties. That makes Preacher a series distinctly not for me, and, I’d bet, not exactly custom-made for many others, either. And that’s fine — plenty of excellent shows are made for, or only appeal to, a fraction of the TV audience.
But Preacher offers few other elements that make it worth seeking out. It’s distinctive, sure: Showrunner Sam Catlin, with the help of executive producer Seth Rogen, knows exactly what kind of dusty, cynical, and cartoonishly violent world he’s supposed to be creating, and the action and the special effects in the set pieces are exactly the adrenaline rushes they need to be. The core trio of Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy are full of quirks and spitfire — like the vampire’s rants about the overratedness of The Big Lebowski (I’m right there with ya, pal) — but the characters are constantly undermined by the plot’s convolutions, which simultaneously plod and zigzag.
The longer a show withholds a mysterious secret (or several) from the audience, the more explosively it needs to deliver. But the sins of Carlos (Desmin Borges) — the man Tulip wants to kill with Jesse — prove pretty dumb, so much so that my respect for the female ex-con dropped significantly. Preacher is capable of some very dark, droll humor, especially in the winking editing, but it’s not funny enough to sustain episodes in which repetitive flashbacks and time-traveling scenes to the 19th century pad the running time. Nor, surprisingly, is there much theological curiosity on the part of the reverend and the undead man who becomes his best friend. In that detail is where we most readily see the understandable yet unbearable narcissism of the characters. Angels and demons, vampires, and a bearded being that Jesse’s congregation mistakes for God make themselves known, but the only question that humanity is interested in is why they suffer. Preacher could provide an answer, but it apparently found it more expedient to just send them to hell.