When AMC first moved from the station that played almost strictly ’80s and ’90s action movies to one that began to produce its own original content, the goal was simple: find a smooth, yet uninhabited middle-ground between the silly, light drama of network television, and the heavy, subscription-based work going on at HBO. Hits like Mad Men and Breaking Bad helped establish their dominance in this area, but above the programs themselves, the timing is what really made AMC’s original programming something special.
They were ahead of the curve, not an easy thing in television, or any sector of the entertainment industry. The issue now is that that curve has decidedly caught up, and producing a show that has enough new and exciting things to say isn’t only daunting, but nearly impossible. That’s why the pilot of AMC’s newest venture, the comic-book adaptation Preacher, was so damn impressive. Not only did they find a new lane to squeeze into, they may just paved a whole new road and have no problem blazing down it at breakneck speeds.
Preacher‘s opening episode, written and directed by comedy writing duo Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, does a lot of things, and has more moving parts than even most pilots these days, but above all it’s supremely confident in its own specific vision. The story follows Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), the titular preacher, as he acclimates to his new profession, one for which he doesn’t seem especially suited. Hinted at through hushed conversation and now-classic black-and-white flashback, it’s apparent that Jesse may be a man of faith, but has more frequently been a man of violence.
So Jesse bumbles through his sermons to the crowd of less-than-interested Annville, Texas, residents that make up his congregation, fights, in vain, to help a victim of apparent domestic abuse, and works to keep his violent past firmly in the rearview mirror. Goldberg and Rogen do a good job, through various cursory character introductions, of quickly building the West Texas world of the series, while also playing on some familiar southern-living clichés: racist mascots, crooked sheriffs, and confederate sympathizers.
The pilot also does a good job of establishing some mysteries to drive the action forward with gusto. Jesse’s past will obviously be one of the driving forces, and the introduction of Tulip (Ruth Negga), the ear-biting, bazooka-making former partner — and lover? — will surely be an essential factor in learning about Jesse’s life prior to preacher-hood. While Jesse’s visit to a kindly and horribly disfigured boy named Eugene Root (Ian Colletti) adds some heart to a pilot that’s more action-comedy than emotional character study.
Jesse’s dark and mysterious and brooding and — as evidenced in one particular bar scene — is going to have his fair share of badass fight sequences, but it’s really the series’ two side characters, and their rollicking, blood-soaked introductions, that made this episode one of the best pilot episodes in recent memory.
First you have Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun), a coke-snorting, bong-hitting, foul-mouthed vampire we meet moments before he systematically butchers a private jet full of what looks like Wall Street hot shots. Why he decides to unleash his wrath is never fully explained, but that doesn’t matters; it’s here that Rogen and Goldberg bring the fight scene prowess they’ve shown off on everything from This Is the End to Pineapple Express. Comedy and killing have rarely been so seamlessly intertwined, and by the time Cassidy is fully finished with both the passengers and the crew and set to jump, sans parachute, out of the speeding jet, it’s obvious he will be the dark, comedic center of the series.
The aforementioned Tulip holds her own, though, as she too must fight and claw her way to make it from her first scene, hurtling through a cornfield while fighting off a would-be assassin, to her second, which has her eliciting the help of a pair of youngsters in the creation of a makeshift bazooka. She may not be a vampire, and is perhaps a little less nihilistic than Cassidy, but she can surely hold her own, and will likely be a deciding factor in many battles to come.
What makes Preacher‘s pilot episode so exciting is the many layers of narrative Rogen and Goldberg are able to introduce, while not overwhelming the audience with people, places, and facts. Sure, they introduce events that take place everywhere from Africa to Russia to Kansas, but it all feels like it’s going to one specific end point, rather than simply expanding a universe we’re only just becoming accustomed to. When the final act finally introduces us to the series’ true supernatural force — the spirit monster that finds a comfortable occupancy in Jesse’s body and soul — it feels more earned than seemingly possible, given the absurdity of that idea.
At the end of the pilot, as Jesse gives perhaps the most confident sermon of his life, with Tulip, Cassidy, and the rest of the townspeople in attendance, it’s evident that all the players are in place, making this pilot perhaps one of the most efficient and downright fun origin stories of all time.