For comics fans, writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon’s 1995-2000 DC/Vertigo series “Preacher” was one of the era’s iconic books.
Concerning one Jesse Custer, a small-town Texas preacher who becomes gifted with “the voice of God” (which can compel anyone to do whatever he says), “Preacher” became a vector for everything the Irish writer thought about America, Westerns, God, faith, good, evil, cowboys, patriotism, the nature of organized religion, the Vietnam War and vampires.
Not all of it holds up perfectly, but thanks to Ennis’ incredible ear for dialogue and Dillon’s canny storytelling, “Preacher” became an influential must-read for a certain strain of geek. (There is more than a little of the Irish vampire Cassidy in Spike from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”)
Now, after years of development, a television adaptation premieres Sunday on AMC. The pilot screened at South by Southwest, to a typically rapturous SXSW reception.
Nerds, beware: This is in no way a straight adaptation of the comic. Plotlines have shifted, various bits sewn together. Instead of walking the earth with his pals like Caine in “Kung Fu,” it seems Jesse will be confined, more or less, to one place (possibly for budgetary reasons).
But creators Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Sam Catlin have molded elements of the comic into something that could very well succeed on its own.
The pilot, directed by Rogen and Goldberg, opens with something flying through the cosmos — a ball of light, crying like an infant. It slams into a Christian preacher in Africa. For a second, all seems well. Then … disaster.
Eventually, we find ourselves with Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), the pastor of a small, poorly attended Texas church. We are told that Jesse has a checkered, violent past but has returned, out of a sense of obligation, to the church where his daddy preached. (For the record, West Texas is played in “Preacher” by New Mexico.)
Other disagree, but I found the casting of Cooper to be a bit wobbly. Quite frankly, the British-as-it-gets Cooper — who played Howard Stark in the “Captain America” movies and in the show “Agent Carter” — couldn’t look, let alone sound, LESS Texan, no matter how many badass signifiers he sports — the drinking, the smoking, the swagger, the ‘tude.
And he is a pretty terrible preacher. This is probably intentional; running a dying church is probably not what Jesse wants to be doing with this life (and explains the poor Sunday turnout).
But it’s also hard to imagine a Texas church, any Texas church, putting up with his lifeless yakking for long. He does have one supporter in Emily (Lucy Griffiths), a widow and single mother whose character is just screaming, “I have a weird secret that will be revealed down the road.”
Things liven up with the arrival of his ex-girlfriend and former partner in crime, Tulip (the excellent Ruth Negga, an Ethiopian-Irish actress who can’t quite locate a Texas accent, either). A bit of a manic criminal dream girl, Tulip nevertheless gets a memorable scene involving explosives that’s easily the show’s joyous highlight. Tulip was a terrific character to begin with; Negga find in her new depth and energy.
Other supporting players include Sheriff Hugo Root (good to see you, W. Earl Brown) and his disfigured-thanks-to-an-attempted-suicide son Eugene (Ian Colletti, a nice surprise). And then there’s Cassidy (Joe Gilgun), an Irish outlaw and undead wanderer who comes to Annville, bringing trouble with him. Gilgun knows he has the fun part — he gets to drink everything in sight, swear and chew scenery like a vamp draining a helpless blonde.
Cassidy and Tulip are the show’s beating heart (no vampire pun intended), the id to Jesse’s superego, which is clever. After he is infused with the Lord, so to speak, Jesse suddenly has power beyond imagining, directly from a God that he probably no longer believes in. Cassidy and Tulip (and even Emily) show Jesse various directions he could go with his power. Clearly, he will have to find his own path.
Thus far, it’s a decent adaptation of material that wasn’t exactly screaming to be put on television. But in a world where “Walking Dead” rules everything around it, you can’t exactly blame AMC for rolling the dice.
“Preacher” premieres Sunday with an encore presentation May 29 .