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TV Review: ‘Preacher’

With:

Dominic Cooper, Ruth Negga, Joseph Gilgun, Lucy Griffiths, Anatol Yusef, Tom Brooke, W. Earl Brown, Ian Colletti, Derek Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley

If every TV pilot episode serves as a show’s calling card, dropping clues about its overall tone and potential, then “Preacher’s” is singed around the edges, and sulfur-scented. In the 90-minute premiere of the new hour-long AMC series, someone spontaneously combusts into a shower of goo; one of the main protagonists guzzles blood directly out of a man’s chest; and a child responds to witnessing a death-blow by grinning and yelling, “Awesome!” It’s precisely what fans of the controversial cult comic-book, which debuted in 1995, expect.

There are a number of reasons “Preacher” hasn’t been made into a film or TV series before now. Strictly adhering to the original story, as created by writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon (who serve as co-executive producers on the TV series), is an unwieldy and expensive proposition. Various cinematic versions of the tale have been bouncing around in development hell since 1998, but none of the entities that toyed with the property managed to corral “Preacher’s” dark, sacrilegious tone and also tame the plot’s sprawl.

Fans should be relieved that the job of realizing “Preacher” as a series fell into the laps of creators and executive producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, childhood friends and professed super-fans of the comic books, whose previous collaborations include “This Is the End” and writing for “Da Ali G Show.” Rogen and Goldberg clearly understand the careful dance between impertinent humor and extreme violence contained in the source material, and they honor that off-kilter tone in the pilot without being so married to the comic book’s structure that the show loses focus.

The first issues of the comics, published under DC’s Vertigo imprint, took the action to locales around the country as well as to distant realms, including a very structured Heaven. The pilot handles some of these diversions by opening with an animated, tongue-in-cheek homage to ’50s sci-fi schlock like “It Came From Outer Space,” and depicts a strange force swinging by the outer planets in the solar system before touching down in Africa, Russia, and, eventually, Texas. In general, though, comic-book purists should be aware that “Preacher” captures the spirit of the comics instead of hewing closely to that material; although the key elements of the original are present, it’s best to think of the series’ opening chapters a prequel.

On some level, Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) wants to be good, if not altogether God-fearing. Custer has recently returned to Annville, Texas, to assume the ministerial duties at his late father’s small church, All Saints Congregational. But his tiny flock is as unenthusiastic about his preaching as he is, in spite of the unwavering support of the church’s most devoted assistant, Custer’s friend, Emily (Lucy Griffiths).

Jesse has a checkered past he’s trying to leave behind. That may be impossible after his hellion ex-girlfriend, Tulip (Ruth Negga), arrives in town, not long after a strange Irishman named Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun) also drops into his life. In the midst of all this, during a dark night of the soul, Jesse is confronted by an odd force that enters his body and grants him an overwhelming power — near-absolute influence over others. Wielding this power, which Jesse can’t control at first and then begins to question, results in some truly perverse situations.

Polarizing as its subject may seem, “Preacher” nevertheless feels perfectly on brand for AMC. Those tuning in are likely to be won over by its bawdy humor and fascinated by the crisp, frenetic choreography during the premiere’s numerous fight scenes; literally every central character gets a chance to get his or her licks in.

What remains to be seen is whether those who fall for “Preacher’s” premiere have the patience to stick with it after the pace slows, which it does quite noticeably by episode two. Mind you, that doesn’t mean the blood flow is stanched entirely; one wild confrontation spills so much red that it quickly devolves into slip-and-slide slapstick.

It’s tough to find fault with “Preacher’s” casting. Negga brings a rugged femininity and insouciance to Tulip, a woman who roars into her ex’s life with sex and fury. Cooper similarly cuts a compelling figure as Jesse, a man tragically keen to cultivate his faith, but who can’t conceal a cocky smile as he expertly rams his fist into a brute’s jaw during a bar fight.

Gilgun, though, is the real scene stealer, exuding puckish joy in every moment of his performance, but in the quieter moments between Cassidy and Custer, when they gently spar over the validity of basic moral values, he really shines.

Beneath its veneer of savagery, at times “Preacher” aspires to carry on a conversation about the nature of faith, though it doesn’t filter those debates through any specific dogma. Some of that conversation plays out through depictions of the people of Annville, including the town’s deformed pariah, Eugene (Ian Colletti), and his hard-hearted father, Sheriff Root (W. Earl Brown).

Other figures, particularly two strange men known as DeBlanc (Anatol Yusef) and Fiore (Tom Brooke), lurk around the story’s edges, and characters merely alluded to in the pilot, one of whom is played by Jackie Earle Haley, will impact the saga down the road.

It’s unclear how dominant, or effective, those tangential elements of the series will be. What’s certain is that “Preacher’s” pilot leaves no space for middle-of-the-road sentiment; you’re either all in or you’re not. That also means Rogen and Goldberg succeeded in realizing what was heretofore considered to be an impossible project — and they’ve done so with amazing panache.

TV Review: 'Preacher'

(Series; AMC, Sun. May 22, 10 p.m.)

Production: Filmed in New Mexico by Sony Pictures Television for AMC.

Crew:

Executive producers, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Sam Catlin, James Weaver, Vivian Cannon, Jason Netter, Ken F. Levin, Neal H. Moritz, Ori Marmur; co-executive producers, Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon, Mark McNair, Michael Slovis, Sara Goodman; directors, Goldberg, Rogen; writer, Catlin; camera, Bill Pope; production designer, Julie Berghoff; editor, Kelley Dixon; music, Dave Porter; costume designer, Laura Jean Shannon; casting, Linda Lowy, Will Stewart. 90 MIN.

Cast:

Dominic Cooper, Ruth Negga, Joseph Gilgun, Lucy Griffiths, Anatol Yusef, Tom Brooke, W. Earl Brown, Ian Colletti, Derek Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley

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