Various elements of the episode will be discussed in this review, so beware spoilers. And watch the episode before you read on, lest you face the wrath of the almighty. Or Cassidy...
Meet Jesse Custer
After a stylised opening that wouldn't be out of place in a B-movie, Preacher announces itself in a bloody fashion that makes a statement. And that statement is: "Expect gore, gags and irreverence!" Genesis has arrived, except this isn't a reunion for Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel and the gang. It's a weird, glowing entity that appears to offer great power to the right person. Sadly for the poor African preacher who kicks off the episode, he isn't the chosen one. Instead, that would be Jesse Custer, played with sombre, world-weary charm by Dominic Cooper. Jesse is a terrible preacher for a different reason – he just doesn't seem to believe any more. In himself, or what he's saying.
This introduction to the man fills us in on most of what we need to know right now, while also leaving some tantalising threads dangling: what was his father messed up in? What exactly did Jesse get up to when he was younger, since everyone seems to be aware of his past. If Jesse here seems a little bit of a ramrod compared to his compatriots, it's only because Cassidy and Tulip are so much fun that the straight man of the story – and he's certainly no stiff – suffers a little by comparison. But once we find him digging into a domestic abuse issue that's not as simple as it appears (see below) and merging with Genesis (not that anyone knows its name for now), he starts to become more energised. Is Cooper what most people will have imagined when they tore Jesse from the comic books and imagined him portrayed on screen? Maybe not, but he works here.
One of the best casting choices in recent memory, Joseph Gilgun tears it up as Cassidy, bringing his typical sly, chatty confidence to the role, as good as match for his abilities as This Is England's Woody or Misfits' Rudy. Plus: vampire, which we learn quickly when his religious foes catch up to him on an executive pleasure plane where he's working as a host. Here, the show first displays some audacious stunt work and great fight scenes, culminating in Cassidy leaping from the plane and landing (off screen) splat in a field, reviving himself by snacking on a passing cow. He makes an instant impression, and not just on the earth. A later, quieter scene that finds him in jail talking faith and choices with Jesse also works, igniting a fast friendship between two very different men. Gilgun brings such great physicality to the role that you know almost all you need to know about Cassidy just in a couple of scenes. And his own backstory has interesting wrinkles we're interested to see play out.
If anyone can match Cassidy's introduction, it's Ruth Negga's Tulip, who we meet fighting several foes in a car that careens through a cornfield. Similar to the battle on the plane, this is a testament to great stunt work, directed ably by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg that should see Tulip win you over before she's barely said a word. Her chemistry with Cooper is also palpable when Jesse and his ex finally do meet. Smart, capable and extremely violent when called upon, Tulip works well on screen with some backstory tinkering, and Negga is clearly having a blast playing her. It's such a different role from the (usually) more toned-down part she played on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
We barely scratch the surface of Annsville, Texas in this initial episode, but you do get a flavour for life in the dusty small town. We might wish for a little more subtlety when it comes to the redneck-infested town, but then Preacher rarely went in for shades of grey. And at least you have the likes of Emily (Lucy Griffiths) and Sheriff Hugo Root (W. Earl Brown) to balance out the swaggering Donnie (Derek Wilson). But even Donnie and wife Betsy (Jamie Anne Allman) have sides to them beyond bigoted meat factory worker and his seemingly abused wife. True, there are easy jokes about casually racist people and squirrel-shooting incidents, but they fit the ramped-up tone on display.
Or, as comic book readers know him, Arseface. The TV version, who has yet to be described as such (but then, he hasn't met Cassidy), is less horrifying than his comic book iteration, but starts out in the same sweetly positive fashion. We only meet him briefly, sympathetically brought to life by Ian Colletti, is a despised suicide survivor and a big fan of Jesse's – whether he stays that way will depend on how much of the comic book story the team intends to follow, but he's a welcome dose of heart for now.
Preacher has a lot of work ahead of it, on a mission to not only adapt Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's acclaimed – including by us – comic book series in a way that will satisfy both the hardcore fans (surely an impossibility given the source material's nature, which doesn't so much push the envelope as light it on fire) and introduce the story to those who have never cracked open its pages. But on the evidence of this, series developers Rogen, Goldberg and Sam Catlin are walking that tightrope with as much insouciant style, boundary-pushing humour and respect for the original as they can. Beyond the basic main characters, they obviously have to make some big changes so the sprawling story and world can unfold, even with the generous time constraints of TV compared to movies, but on the evidence of the pilot alone, they've made a good stab at it so far. The characters are sketched in without too much exposition (indeed, newbies may end up feeling a tad overwhelmed) and are taking their time building out the concept. And while you might worry that it would all be bro-tastic or stoner comedy work from Rogen and Goldberg, they show true range here, helped no doubt by Catlin's sure hand and television experience.
Highlight: Cassidy glugging blood from a broken bottle stabbed through an enemy.
Lowlight: The squabble over the new sports mascot was awfully throwaway and an easy gag.
Kill of the week: Moo! Apocalypse cow, courtesy of Cassidy.
Quote of the week: "You put your fingers in a socket, or something?" – Tulip to Jesse, offering the hair critique burn we were all thinking.
MVP: We already like Cassidy, but Tulip gets the award here for that stonking fight and innovative arts & crafts lesson. Random thought: Who are those mysterious men on the trail of the entity? Comic book readers will know, but we'll avoid discussing that for now.
Quick note here: while the pilot is launching in the UK today (May 23), the regular series doesn't kick off until Monday, June 6. Blame weird scheduling across the pond thanks to a holiday weekend.
Airing on AMC Sunday nights in the US, Preacher is available weekly on Amazon Prime Mondays in the UK.