It was the time of the Preacher, when the story began….
Jesus Is Coming… run! That's what the sign outside Jesse Custer's reads in one episode. Someone keeps changing it, and this is probably the least obscene of them. It's a symbol that Jesse Custer, possessing the word of God, remains powerless in the grand scheme of things. Someone will always keep changing his sign. And it's his lack of knowledge that restrains him from doing what he feels needs to be done.
Preacher, the new TV series based on the Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon comic book, debuts on AMC tonight in the US and on Amazon Prime tomorrow in the UK.
And The Walking Dead has met its match.
I've seen the first four episodes of the show. I'm going to talk about them as a whole, restricting spoilers, but comparing the show to the comic, saying which characters appear, and alluding to a few scenes, without specifics.
The comic book has been radically taken apart and pieced it together into a different shape. Rather than a "road movie" across America hunting for God to bring him to account for creation, this show stays in one place, deals with God right there, and lets the madness of middle America come to it. So rather than Preacher Jesse Custer's congregation dying in that first chapter, he has to live with them. And they include all manner of characters we will recognise that he encountered during his journeys in Preacher, all living in this own town, from Quincannon to Cassiday to Arseface and a few new ones as well.
That is the biggest change and it affects the structure of everything else around it.
So Dominic Cooper as Jesse Custer has to deal with the congregation who are very much like the folk we see in that original bar scene from issue 1. He's also a much better fighter from the beginning and is not afraid to use those skills as well. He's the bad guy trying to be a good guy from the comics, though with his own sense of honour. No John Wayne though, sadly, and while his past is explored, it remains distant. After all, he is more concerned with his slowly discovering his new ability…
…the nature of which is not spelt out as it is in the comic, it is to be pieced together and we are still far away from that. If it is Genesis, acting as The Word Of God, then we get to see it trying out a number of preachers with deadly effect, including Tom Cruise, before settling on Jesse Custer. And, yes, the violent death of Tom Cruise does become a running gag from episode to episode, the world obsessed with something so trivial compared to what is really happening in a small Texan town that attracts the very worst of them.
Ruth Negga as Tulip is given more agency and independence away from Jesse Custer's own storyline from the get go, throughout the first four episodes and we get a greater understanding of her world straight off the bat rather than the longer, more spread out version as seen in the comic. Her story is less about her gaining strength, she has it from the get-go and uses it in similar ways. Her entrance is a standout, violent, insane, and joyous in its over the topness. Her wink as she tells her name for the first time will melt hearts. But it's the way she just walks in and takes control in the whorehouse from her simply presence defines that character even more. She would be the stand out character of the show if it wasn't for…
Cassiday is… Cassiday. Rather than purely wandering around the world, he is actively being pursued by some unknown Christian agency, presumably the Grail, wishing for his death. We know them from the comics, here they are right from the beginning. Actor Joe Gulgin's Irish accent is dodgy, but dammit it, you really don't find yourself caring at all. Funny, rude, reveling in his grossness but with an innocent warm heart. The slashfic between him and Jesse will be strong. And his opening scene – hilarious and violent – will be utterly legendary. And hopefully, the champagne bottle uncorking will distract from the black guy with the spear. The most controversial thing about him will be his disdain for The Big Lebowski.
And so we get the triangle of the comic between the three. Jesse and Cassidy, bonding like brothers who never were, abusing each other but having each others back during the most extreme of circumstances.
We flash back to 1881 to see the origins of the Saint Of Killers, the angel of Death rooted in the Wild West, but we are only just starting to explore his story, about what he will become and what he will be ordered to do. Right now, he is a haunted, silent man living amongst horrors in the past played by Graham MacTavish.
Jesse Custer will be his, as yet unseen, future.
The only character that seems to have been toned down is Sherrif Root played by W. Earl Brown, he's not the martian-n-gger-hating monster of a father, with some very capable skills on him in the field, but who commits suicide after his encounter with Custer. This one actually seems to slightly care for his son "Arseface" and has resigned himself to an ineffectual position of pseudo-power that seems him achieving nothing in life but a status quo. It's probably the only real disappointment of the show.
But I guess it keeps him hanging around. And I may learn to hate him for the right reasons as well. Arseface, sorry, Eugene Root, isn't quite the wide-eyed innocent though, but he doesn't need to be as much of a contrast to his father. There will be toys though, and possibly plushies.
The show also gives welcome surprises such as the Adephi, angels from on high as in the comic but here in badly fitting suits. Tom Brooke as Fiore, Anatol Yusef as DeBlanc, here working as a British double act, "the government", here to track down Genesis – or whatever is inside Jesse Custer – and bring it home. An outstanding pair. Brooke especially appeals to me, I saw him in The Ritual Slaughter Of Gorge Gastromos a few years ago year and his transformative skill into a deity amongst men is on rare display here.
Quincannon's history in the town goes back to Custer's father, played straightforwardly without the benefit of hindsight by Nathan Darrow. This is Pottersville out of It's A Wonderful Life, a place where Quincannon rules by suggestion and part of the fabric of the land, including Custer's family history. Jackie Earle Haley plays him with those ridiculously oversized glasses and as much threat, menace and perversity behind those thin lips as he ever had with Rorschach. We're not yet at his meat woman, but we do see the steps that will take him there.
New characters include Quincannon's men, specifically Donny, with his own issues with Jesse and a noise all of his own, and his wife, Betsey, the subject of unnecessary vengeance by Custer that starts off so many proceedings.
But there will be much attention given to "Voice Of Sanity" character Emily played by Lucy Griffiths, who helps Custer run the church – hell running it herself, and the diner, and a family and remains his Jiminy Cricket – and one he is destined to ignore and disappoint – and she will just shrug it off. She may be the most honest, truest, most identifiable character in the show and is destined to be the subject of many an essay. But Miles plays her own voice of sanity.
Oh and yes, there's Linus, a pedophile school bus driver, his presence haunting Jesse as he rides around town. Wheels within wheels – and this time on wheels.
Many of the changes are a matter of detail. But the flavour of that detail, of character, or song, of substance, is pure Preacher, informed by the source, reflecting it and returning to it time after time. Some scenes are verbatim from the comic, others feel like they should have been in the comic.
The music takes its key from the first issue of the comic, we have The Time Of The Preacher, its lyrics spelling out many details of the show. It is reminiscent of Tarantino, but also the recent Fargo series, taking a lyrically strong song and smashing it down on the titles or the end of the show, each the opposite of bland muzak, each giving a very strong overpowering flavour to the scene.
There's plenty of Fargo in the choice of visuals as well, the framing of the landscape and the people in it. The show looks brown, the brown of Texas, he dust and the dirt and the heat of the day, with the blue and the black of the night. It's a television show that looks coloured by Matt Hollingsworth. Some will look to a further Tarantino influence on the movie in the direction, and it there no doubt, especially from something like Kill Bill. But in the action scene, the fast cuts, zooms and pans contrasting with slow pauses, often for comedy effect, are far more reminiscent of Edgar Wright. And this is a really good thing. Sometimes, as in Tulip's opening scenes, it's more about what you don't show than what you do.
There is so much to enjoy here. The book will give them plenty of material to draw out over the next few years but they are happy to invent new ideas from scratch as if they are a part of the canon. The show has been infected by the comics and, like the origin of Genesis, it wants to breed.
One of my favourite such moment recalls the background appearances of nuns in the TV show A Very Peculiar Practice. Here we have a "politically correct" mascot for local team the Prairie Dogs, wandering in the background, sitting in the whorehouse, getting beaten up by enraged sports fans, it looks like he'll be in most episodes… if you can find him.
You're going to love Preacher. And yes, if you really can't do without a vision of John Wayne, drink enough whisky while watching the show, odds are you'll find him whispering sweet nothings into your ear.
Preacher airs on AMC in the US tonight and on Amazon Prime in the UK from tomorrow.
Fifth episode, please….