The Time of the Preacher: Cosmic Pricks, Needle Drops, Nerds and Neophytes
“God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Genesis 1:27
In the universe of AMC’s Preacher, that Old Testament passage, already loaded with metaphorical portent, is given bonus ironic heft when it’s revealed that God is an abject cosmic prick.
This actual literal revelation comes at the midpoint of “Call and Response”, the premiere season’s finale, but the viewer has long since come to suspect that the kinky, cynical world that Jesse, Tulip, Cassidy and the people of scabrous Texan shithole Annville inhabit is one in which the creator has forsaken his ugly handiwork.
Annville is the petri dish in which the series’ take on human (and divine) nature is initially put under the microscope, a seedy cauldron of guns, patriotism and bad faith marinating in violence, bigotry, and despair situated on a subterranean river of cow shit.
Backing up the truck, momentarily: a quick plot sidebar for the uninitiated, quoting myself, reviewing the debut episode:
“… Preacher Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) is imbued with the Genesis force (the heavenly offspring of some molten angel-demon how’s-yer-father) and hits the road with ex-girlfriend Tulip (Ruth Negga) and Irish vampire Cassidy (Joe Gilgun) to hunt down an absentee Heavenly Father for an overdue explanation as to why he’s abandoned creation…”
After spending Preacher’s debut season navigating the darker urges of his flock (not to mention his own hubris and violent tendencies), the Rev Custer finds himself at a crucial juncture in his own faith struggle.
With his congregants continually reminding him of their sense of God’s absence, and only recently disavowed of the notion the Genesis force was God Himself, the maverick clergyman is looking for answers, specifically some indication of His investment in Creation, direct from the source Himself.
Jesse has also wagered his church on the success of his attempted summoning- unhinged local tycoon Odin Quincannon is looking to expand his meat and power empire, and has a vested interest in the Preacher denouncing the Heavenly Father’s existence, to boot.
“Down in a crap game I’ve been losing at roulette
Cards are bound to break me but I ain’t busted yet
’Cause I’ve been called a natural lover by that lady over there
Honey, I’m just a natural gambler but I try to do my share”
Blood, Sweat and Tears — Go Down Gamblin’
Preacher is a show soundtracked by immaculately curated country, roots, southern rock and soul deep cuts*. It’s also more than happy to lean hard on American Recordings era Johnny Cash and left field covers, like the final episode’s climactic Dave Lichens cover of Blind Melon’s ‘No Rain’.
No musical cue in the series thus far, however, is at once more emblematic of the shaggy outlaw heart of the Ennis/ Dillon original, their characters’ journeys, and the project’s road to the screen itself, than the masterfully deployed Blood, Sweat and Tears nugget ‘Go Down Gamblin’’.
Employed at the series’ narrative tipping point, Jesse’s imminent conversation with The Man Upstairs, this brassy, swaggering slice of early ’70s funk rock tips its meta hat as the Reverend nervously prepares to enact his fraught end game.
Sure, the tune’s a nod to the dubious nature of Jesse’s plan (the Quincannon bet; his use of the angels Deblanc and Fiore’s heavenly hotline, plus a convenient angel hand, to conference call with Yahweh) but you’d be just as valid in assuming it’s a direct reference to Executive Producers Seth Rogen (Superbad), Evan Goldberg (This Is The End) and showrunner Sam Catlin’s (Breaking Bad) long gestating campaign to bring the book to the screen**.
At any rate, Jesse succeeds at getting a white-haired, Gilliam-esque vision of Our Father Who Art up on the celestial blower for some real talk.
Opening the pews to questions from the packed church, the deity is besieged with a few thimble deep interrogations on the nature of existence — “Why do good things happen to bad people?”, “What’d you do with the dinosaurs?”, “Is my little girl with you in Heaven?” — before the town hall forum quickly devolves into a squabbling, juvenile morass.
Growing increasingly wary, it’s not long before Jesse’s rumbled the geezer on the throne as nothing more than a heavenly flunky desperately attempting to pull the faithful back into line, petrified of the consequences of them discovering the Lord’s gone AWOL, done legged it.
And well might the white-suited bureaucratic stiffs behind the Pearly Gates have fretted: no sooner is the heavenly throne confirmed vacant than the nihilistic denizens of Annville fall upon one another in an apocalyptic set-to, divested of any final pretence of feigned humanity or goodwill, embracing their demons with savage gusto as Quincannon’s methane reactor reaches critical mass.
Disgusted with the craven spectacle of it all, Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy split, our anti-heroes’ quest to bring The Alpha and The Omega back into line getting properly rolling as Annville is wiped off the map by a lethal concentration of cow farts, perhaps EPs Rogen and Goldberg’s most triumphant flatulence related wheeze to date.
Tulip: I’m sorry. We’re just gonna, like, drive around shooting people, getting wasted and looking for God?
Cassidy: [laughs] Oh, I’m so in.
Tulip: And what are you gonna do when you find him?
Jesse: Well, if God wants our help, we’ll help him. If he doesn’t, we’re gonna kick his ass.
With that spirited nod to the opening scenes of 1995’s Preacher, issue one, the first season of AMC’s Preacher drew to a close this week, many of the book’s classic elements falling into place.
Indeed, considering the tediously predictable gnashing of teeth from the literalist fanboy massive, this first season performed the impressive task of introducing newcomers to Ennis and Dillon’s blackly comic, supernaturally charged Southern Gothic universe, whilst simultaneously foreshadowing major plotlines from the book.
Sure, the show doesn’t drop the clutch and peel out in a cloud of dust and exhaust like the book, but this is a property that needed some carefully laid foundations to introduce the characters’ surreal, heightened reality to an audience that doesn’t give a shit about Jesse’s lack of white jeans and certainly wouldn’t be able to tell a Seraphim from an Adephi from a Genesis force at the outset.
With all of that mythology in place, with the benefit of additional backstory and some cheeky twists on the original text (winking at Genesis’ parents, for example), neophyte Preacher fans (of which there are hundreds of thousands more than original readers, True Believer) now at least have the basics in place before we’re thrown head long into the lunacy of the Herr Starr and The Grail, the horrors of Angelville and whatever else the Rogen/ Catlin/ Goldberg team jam into their sophomore arc.
Having been on board for the book from early in the run as it was being released, it’s pretty enervating to be keyed into some of the grander sweep of the narrative, but also be absolutely fucking clueless as to how things might play out episode to episode.
Preacher is also an aesthetic marvel. Cinematographer Bill Pope (just check those credits) pays homage to the Western vistas of Ford and Leone, revels in moments of Raimi-esque bloodshed, whilst also keeping a foot firmly in the absurdist desert noir of the Coen brothers circa Raising Arizona. Pope’s endless bleached blue Texan skies and ochre desert vistas contrast with painterly compositions and stunning, chiaroscuro-like church interiors, warm golden hues and jarring, lurid neon illustrating the sacred and the profane.
The spiritual successor to your Wild At Hearts, your True Romances, your Bonnie & Clydes, Preacher’s (the comic) very ’90s meditations on America have been carefully transplanted into Preacher (the show) via the surprisingly safe, nuanced hands of two Executive Producers previously best known for scatological juvenilia and bong rips.
Preacher (the story) is a satire about faith, community, morality, sexuality, violence, gender, blasphemy, Patriotism, love, friendship, belonging, perversion… Thinking about it, perhaps it’s best to just leave it at ‘the full shit show that is the human experience… with grievous bodily harm for added comic effect’ and be done with it, eh?
Suffice to say, I could bang on about this show indefinitely — I absolutely cannot wait to see where Jesse, Tulip, Cassidy and that raunchy Chevrolet Nova pull in next.
Roll on season two.
If you’re still not convinced, or gave up early in the season owing to expectations of something more slavishly straightforward, I’ll leave you with a few reassuring words from showrunner Sam Catlin in an attempt to bring you back into the Preacher fold.
“In the first season we really wanted to establish Jesse’s relationship to God and lack thereof. He is disillusioned and losing his congregation from the beginning. We needed to put Jesse’s journey into context, and his mission for next season.” Sam Catlin, Deadline
When did I know Preacher truly loved me? Probably when they dropped this ’98 hair metal oddity from Rough Cutt (me neither) offshoot Jailhouse in episode two:
* Dip into the esoteric delights of the full season’s soundtrack here. Some saintly Youtuber has compiled a playlist of most of the music featured on the show here, too. Fun fact: former ring-in Poison axeman Blues Saraceno contributes a couple of iconic tracks to proceedings, upping the ‘weird' quotient considerably.
** Bullets dodged along the project’s long path from page to screen include cinematic versions potentially helmed by Kevin Smith (no), Rachel Talalay (Tank Girl), Mark Steven Johnson (Ghost Rider) and Sam Mendes (Road to Perdition), before rumours of a long form HBO series began gathering steam early in the decade.