Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg may not be the most obvious pick for adapting a violent comic book series about a hard-drinking, ass-kicking minister, but that’s hardly news to them. The comedy writing duo spent the past decade trying to attach themselves to discussions surrounding what to do with “Preacher,” Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s epically wild supernatural saga about a vicious man of god. Based on the first episode previewed at SXSW in advance of the series’ May 22 premiere on AMC, their perseverance paid off.
A perfectly grimy Dominic Cooper plays leading man Jesse Custer, who struggles to command his small, gossipy community while greater forces assemble just out of view. The surprisingly well-rendered introductory sequence sets the stage for the next hour of zany action and suspense: a mysterious comet careens through the solar system, crashing into an African church and inhabiting the body of its minister, who promptly explodes in a sea of blood. It’s not the last time. Over the course of 60 minutes, “Preacher” delivers a dizzying volume of first-rate action sequences, grotesque makeup, and macho showdowns, pointing the way to a promising new stage for genre series. While few would consider the first episode of “The Walking Dead” to be its strongest entry, “Preacher” shows off its massive appeal from the start.
But the show’s not in any hurry. A menacing force is invading the planet, and presumably the preacher’s the guy who has to stop it, though the pilot spends most of its time building up his loopy world. When he’s not grimacing through his sermons as he stares down a thankless Texan congregation (someone keeps changing the church sign to sexual innuendo), Jesse copes with his whiny locals. These include the great character actor Brian Huskey, who gives the episode its most outrageous punchline, and a disfigured suicide survivor nicknamed Arseface (Ian Colletti), whose father is the town’s suspicious sheriff (W. Earl Brown).
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In the meantime, Irish bloodsucker Cassidy (Joe Gilgun) parachutes into town after defeating a couple of vampire hunters, just in time to meet Jesse in the middle of a bar fight with one of the locals accused of beating his wife. The stage is set for an unlikely friendship, but there’s a third figure who further shakes up Jesse’s situation — ex-girlfriend Tulip O’Hara (Ruth Negga, sporting a devious smile), a tough-talking vigilante who comes to town enlisting Jesse’s help with a strange mission. And Jesse himself possesses a dangerous power he has yet to fully comprehend.
Needless to say, there’s a lot going on, and it’s not yet clear how well “Preacher” will juggle all its moving parts. But there’s no doubting the show’s polished look, which rivals any big screen blockbuster. Cinematographer Bill Pope (“The Matrix” trilogy) manages to keep a tight focus on movement in a series of brilliantly choreographed action scenes, including one extraordinary hand-to-hand showdown set entirely inside a moving plane. But Rogen and Goldberg, who directed the pilot (they’re billed as executive producers with Sam Caitlin), manage just as well to leave certain events up to viewers’ imaginations. In one memorable bit, Tulip takes down an entire helicopter, but the scene stays with a pair of awe-stricken children listening to the fiery events while hidden in a cellar.
While these bracing moments offer a ton of entertainment value, they’re hardly the kind of blunt humor one might expect from the main talent behind the camera. However, anyone familiar with Rogen and Goldberg’s feature-length directing work with “This is the End” and “The Interview” will recall the scope of the action sequences there, all of which show that they’ve got the chops for the expert timing found here. To that end, “Preacher” marks a major step forward for the duo as storytellers — a feat not lost on them at the SXSW premiere, where Rogen recalled an initial meeting about the adaptation on the set of “Superbad” in 2008.
Back then, the scope of “Preacher” and its unique tone made it a challenging proposition, and at one point they considered turning it into a miniseries. “‘Band of Brothers’ had just come out, and we thought maybe that was a good approach — a big, epic 10-hour miniseries,” Rogen said. “Then superhero movies took off and we thought maybe it could like a trilogy [of films]. And then cable TV became awesome, so it actually became the perfect format.”
More specifically, “Preacher” comes along at a seminal moment for genre television, when “The Walking Dead” and its ilk has proven the viability of sci-fi, horror and supernatural narratives beyond niche audiences. Like that show, “Preacher” establishes a massive universe of possibilities with its first episode. Whether or not Rogen and Goldberg can keep steering in satisfying directions remains to be seen, but they’re certainly not taking the opportunity for granted. “It’s always been in the hands of more successful and more talented people than us,” Rogen said of the project’s history. “Somehow, they all fucked it up and it rolled downhill into our laps, for which I’m very grateful.”