Essays · TV

Preacher’s Growing Pains

By  · Published on June 27th, 2016

The Next Few Episodes of AMC’s New Show Will Be Huge.

This article contains references to elements from the first four episodes of Preacher and the first four issues of the Preacher comic series.

Adapting a comic book for the screen is not an easy task. Since the first issue of Preacher was published 21 years ago, Garth Ennis has seen filmmakers ranging from Sam Mendes to Kevin Smith struggle with bringing his and artist Steve Dillon’s creation to life in front of the camera. That was until December 2014, when AMC greenlit a pilot for the series as directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and written by former Breaking Bad producer Sam Catlin.

However, the version they had in mind when they began production is quite different from the one they produced. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Goldberg remarked “We actually pitched, ‘It’s going to be like Sin City, frame-for-frame, almost. We’re going to be really true to the comic.’” But then they ran into what Sam Catlin considers to be the chief problem with such a faithful adaptation:

“Narratively, it starts at 110 miles an hour […] I don’t know how you tell that story in the narrative television form. So, [we] came up with the idea that we would see Jesse as a preacher ‐ because he’s only very briefly a preacher in the comic, and then he’s just kind of a bad-ass guy in a preacher collar. We thought there would be an opportunity to see someone try to do their job, be sort of the spiritual sheriff for the town. There’s so many big set pieces and crazy, over-the-wall violence, comedy, stuff like that. We wanted to ground it in something familiar, so that it didn’t feel like a bad acid trip.”

To the average observer, these changes seem worth it. Four episodes into the new series, reviews have been generally positive. In an interview with Alan Sepinwall at Hitfix, Ennis thinks Catlin and company have succeeded where many other filmmakers failed:

“If you do a straight adaptation, you are simply going to overload the story with grotesque characters and over-the-top bloodbath fight scenes. You’re going to create a whirling maelstrom that will simply bewilder a mainstream audience. It has to do with the difference in form between the screen and the page. That’s the problem that I think Sam Catlin and his team have solved, which is really pacing.”

Critical favor and love from the comic’s creator aside, the first four episodes of Preacher have made for entertaining television. But, at least in my opinion, it seems to lack the narrative momentum that made the comic so special in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong. There is merit to the direction that the producers are taking with the show. As Matt Zoller Seitz writes for Vulture, “fixed drawings and words have an abstract quality that’s very forgiving, more so than images featuring actors moving and talking in real (or ‘real’) locations.” This forgiveness is even more essential in the case of Preacher, an absurd tale of a minister with supernatural powers traveling around the United States in search of God, and not in a metaphorical sense.

Instead, the problem here is one of over-correction. In attempting to compensate for the frenetic nature of the source material, the producers have lost the focus so key to the original text. One key symptom of this concern is the manner in which exposition stretched between episodes to create a veil of mystery. The introduction of the Saint of Killers (referred to as “The Cowboy” in the show’s promotional materials) is emblematic of this trend.

In the show, “The Cowboy” is introduced in a long flashback at the beginning of the second episode. Set in 1881, it offers a glimpse at his family life and his proficiency at scalping. By the end of the fourth episode though, he has yet to be seen again.

The angels, Fiore (Tom Brooke) & DeBlanc (Anatol Yusef), in the show and the comic.

In contrast, the Saint of Killers, as the character is known in the comics, is introduced in the first issue when the angels release him to hunt after Jesse. Although his motivations, besides a lust for killing, remain unclear at that point, his position in relation to the protagonist does not. Unlike the two angels, whom Cassidy is able to quickly dispatch in the second episode of the show, the Saint of Killers is a worthwhile foe for Jesse and his compatriots. At the close of the fourth issue, after nearly ending Jesse’s life and killing an untold number of police officers, his role as one of the driving forces in the story is confirmed once again.

Though the show does not need to be as direct as the comic, Todd VanDerWerff at Vox highlights the feelings that the many disparate, yet unexplained, segments like the one with “The Cowboy” create:

“The thing about Preacher is that it feels like it’s headed somewhere. Not only does every scene feature a moment worth talking about, it also offers the suggestion of where the story might go next, even if it doesn’t actually embark in that direction. Hence the feeling of the series being a long set of teasers, a grab bag of scenes designed to kick off the story of a new episode. But all of those suggestions, when connected, don’t really equal a TV show so much as they equal the hint of one. And that’s maybe fine for an episode or two, but we’re three episodes into this thing (and I’ve seen four), and it’s still treating everything it presents as a mystery, as one part of a vast tapestry that we simply lack the distance to see.”

With this in mind, the next few episodes will be make or break for the series. They could begin to put these moments together into a greater whole or they could draw out the narrative even further. My hope is that they set up the greater conflict of the show well, making the character-driven, yet meandering nature of the first four episodes worthwhile.

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