Saturday, June 4, 2016

Total Depravity: AMC’s Preacher

Dominic Cooper stars in Preacher, on AMC. (Photo: Lewis Jacobs)

The rise of nerd culture to a dominant position over the last decade or so has been enough to give one an inkling of what it must have been like to watch the final triumph of early Christianity over pagan Rome. A small movement with a keen sense of its own oppression has ascended to dominance, turning its beliefs and enthusiasms, once considered odd and marginal, into the norm. Whereas expressing an interest in things like comic books and science fiction would once have been an invitation for ridicule and even bullying, such things are now firmly in the mainstream. Indeed, nerd culture has managed to become so dominant that some of its fans have begun to act in the same manner as their former oppressors. For instance, film critics (especially female ones) who dare to criticize an entry in the endless parade of superhero movies often find themselves facing vicious criticism, even personal threats.

A more benign manifestation of nerd-dom’s newfound power appears in the recent wave of television adaptations of fantasy, sci-fi, and comic-book franchises, including hits such as Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. AMC’s new drama Preacher, which is based on a comic series by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, aims to tap into the audience for those shows. It even comes complete with an aftershow, Talking Preacher, that’s dedicated to discussing the latest episode and is hosted by Chris Hardwick, whom one can always count upon to be uncritically enthusiastic about anything nerd-related. I mention all of this because, since I saw the pilot, I’ve been trying to account for the mostly positive critical response to a show that’s alternately too glib and self-important, too frantic and slow-moving, in its first episode.

The title character of Preacher, Jesse Custer (played by Dominic Cooper), presides over a dwindling congregation in a backwater Texas town. Both he and his parishioners have lost confidence in him; as his assistant Emily (Lucy Griffiths) notes, people are flocking to the nearby mega-church, not least because it offers a Starbucks-like coffee place, among many other attractions. Nor does Jesse seem to be able to do much to address the worldly needs of his flock; when a young boy asks him to do something about his abusive, racist dad, even if it means resorting to physical force, Jesse responds with a long monologue about the futility of violence and how fighting the boy’s father will just lead to further battles with the man’s friends. The boy walks away in disgust.

In many ways, that monologue, which Cooper mostly delivers through a variety of grimaces, captures some of the problems with the show’s sensibility. Preacher wants to make sweeping statements about the nature of faith and pose what it thinks are provocative questions about the existence of God and His capacity and willingness for forgiveness. However, Jesse’s monologue comes off as something that wouldn’t be out of place on Darkness at Noon, the fake show-within-a-show that CBS’s recently departed The Good Wife invented as a way of poking fun at the self-serious tone of many acclaimed cable dramas. Furthermore, Preacher undercuts the entire point of the scene later in the pilot, when Jesse ends up kicking the guy’s ass in a bar fight anyways, along with his loathsome redneck buddies. In the lead-up to that fight, screenwriter Sam Catlin and co-director Seth Rogen (he’s an executive producer, and he helmed the pilot in tandem with Evan Goldberg) make sure we know just how bad Jesse’s opponent is: not only do we get confirmation that he beats his wife, but, since he and his comrades confront Jesse right after they participate in a Civil War reenactment, he’s wearing a Confederate uniform when he meets his comeuppance.

 Ruth Negga, with Joseph Gilgun, in Preacher. (Photo: Lewis Jacobs)

The bar fight also points to another issue with the structure of Preacher’s pilot: there’s not much in the way of character or plot development, and what there is of the former mostly consists of extended and hyperactive (and, admittedly, inventive and entertaining) fight scenes that showcase the martial skills of Jesse and his future partners, his former lover Tulip (Ruth Negga, who’s more fun here than she was in her previous role in a comic-book property, ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and the vampire Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun, also enjoyable). The pilot’s over an hour long and yet, by the end, the dynamics between these three central characters have barely begun to emerge and the larger arc of the season’s plot is similarly impossible to discern. The pilot begins with a mysterious and gruesome event that finally leads to repercussions for Jesse, but only at the end of a lengthy and often slow-moving episode. Even then, it’s not entirely clear how those repercussions have fundamentally affected Jesse’s abilities and the larger purpose to which he will apply those abilities. Nor do we have a better sense of how the world in which Jesse and his cohorts live; as I’ve mentioned, a vampire is a major character, but I didn’t get any handle on how ordinary or extraordinary his existence would be in the world of the show.

Perhaps the best example of the sluggishness with which both the plot and character developments move comes in the periodic flashbacks to a traumatic moment in Jesse’s life the murder of his father that seems to have been the inciting incident that led him to follow in his father’s footsteps to become a preacher. However, the repeated flashbacks never really develop into anything. There are no new details about the circumstances of his father’s death, so the scenes just reiterate that Jesse has lingering guilt issues and a mysterious past.

While the pacing is problematic and the cast is merely so-so, I’ll admit that there were plenty of moments where the show’s slick style and often wicked sense of humor appealed to me. There are some laugh-out-loud moments, including a running gag about the town’s attempts to replace its politically-incorrect high school mascot and a gruesome joke involving Tom Cruise, that go some way to balancing out the show’s more self-serious moments, and in time Preacher might develop some of the fun, quippy tone that made Buffy the Vampire Slayer so delightful. Although they’re a poor substitute for character development, some of the fight scenes are also fun, such as a flashback in which Tulip battles thugs in a speeding car that’s careening through a Kansas cornfield.

However, even these bright spots give me pause. In some respects, Preacher resembles the recent Kingsman: The Secret Service, another comic-book adaptation (this time into a film) that combines graphic mayhem with winking self-awareness. The idea is to signal to us, the audience, that we shouldn’t take what we’re seeing too seriously, no matter how many guts might get spattered across a given scene. The carnage is part of the fun, as in that Kansas scene, which ends with Tulip enlisting two kids to improvise a homemade bazooka that takes down a helicopter. Tulip tells the two kids to stay in the basement and wait until it’s quiet – we hear but don’t see the savage fight that ensues outside the cellar door. The kids emerge into a hellscape: there’s a burning helicopter and multiple casualties, including a corpse with shrapnel composed of repurposed toy army men sticking out of his skull (which Rogen and Goldberg show to us in close-up, naturally). Rather than scream in terror, the kids squeal with delight.

It seems like the rise of this new orthodoxy, the church of nerd culture, leads to an expectation on the part of Preacher’s creators that we’ll react in the same way as those two kids, exclaiming “cool!” as we watch people get shredded and stabbed and bludgeoned. If the prominence of – and critical acclaim for – such a show feels like part of a larger liberatory moment for nerds, I’m happy to hear it. As for me, I must politely but firmly declare myself a dissenter.

Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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