My Problem With The PREACHER Pilot

How small changes make big differences.

I haven’t quite been able to figure out how I feel about the Preacher pilot. It was ok, I guess. I liked some of the casting, and the script manages to keep the sly, dark Garth Ennis black humor. The show is a little… serious and slow? And clearly many changes have been made in the process of adapting the book, some great - the Word of God hitting different preachers before coming to Jesse Custer - and some that trouble me - is this whole show going to be set in Annville? That’s the nature of adaptation, though, and I’m glad that the showrunners understand that the Ennis and Steve Dillon original needs to be futzed with to make it work in 2016.

There was one thing that really bugged me in the pilot, though, and it may seem like a small thing to you. To me it was a big deal, because it speaks to larger thematic issues as well as the character of Jesse Custer. It’s the bar fight Jesse gets into, and I understand why some of the changes were made to it. I like the visual of Jesse fighting Confederate soldiers. I’m okay with Cassidy being there and helping out, which didn’t happen in the comic. But it’s everything else about the fight that troubles me.

Let me explain: in the comic Jesse Custer is a preacher in a small town who has had it up to here. He hates being a preacher. He hates Annville. And more than anything else he hates the hypocritical bullshit of the townspeople. Drunk at the local watering hole Jesse begins holding forth about the secrets that he, as the confessor to the town, knows. About the guy who ate dog shit on a dare. About the guy who is scamming the government for farm grants. About the guy who raped a hitchhiker and then had it covered up by the authorities. As Jesse escalates his revelations (a Biblical word indeed!) the people in the bar become more and more agitated until they finally beat him up.

This establishes some really vital things about Jesse Custer. He’s a straight talker in the classic masculine Southern mode. He doesn’t like lies and bullshit, and he doesn’t like people who behave badly and pretend they’re pious. That’s so important because the entire point of Preacher the comic is that Jesse learns that God has vacated his spot on the throne of Heaven and he is searching for the deity to make Him pay for abandoning His people.

In the show the fight goes down differently. Jesse is doing his preacherly duty by following up on reports of domestic violence - reports that, in true Preacher fashion end up being about consensual kinky sex - and he angers a local tough guy by nosing around in his marriage. The fight ensues, etc.

Everything about that is drastically different from the comics, especially Jesse’s desire to get all up in other people’s business. This is a dramatically different version of Jesse Custer, a guy who is no longer choked by the hypocrisy of smalltown America but rather, in the end, re-dedicates himself to serving it!

Part of what’s troubling me is my own sense of what Preacher is, and to be fair to the show TV’s Preacher is not - and should not be - that. It is its own animal. It needs to be its own animal. At the same time it makes me think about the malleability of characters - how much can you stretch them before they break? How many liberties can TV take with Jesse Custer before he’s simply not Jesse Custer anymore? The character in the pilot is not, to me, recognizable as Jesse Custer (Cassidy and Tulip seem fairly right on, for comparison). He’s surrounded by signifiers of Preacher, but that character just isn’t right.

In all fairness it’s possible that Preacher has very different thematics on its mind. The bar fight actually fits thematically with the first time Jesse uses the Word of God in the show - in both cases he’s trying to do the right thing and it turns out that terrible consequences arise. No good deed goes unpunished may very well end up being the ruling thematic of the TV series, a very different concern from the comic, which was way more about tearing down institutional hypocrisy (a very current theme, I think). While I can’t quite make heads or tails of the decision to have Jesse stay in Annville (a decision I suspect he’ll reverse by the end of the first season, but can that be done without making the whole season feel like treading water? Preacher, in its original form, is inherently a story of the open road and traveling in America), I can be open minded to the show having other concerns and themes on its mind.

So I’m not quite sure what to make of the pilot. It was okay. It wasn’t quite “Preacher.” Maybe it doesn’t have to be. I’ll certainly give the show a few more episodes to see how else the series differentiates itself from the comic… and to see if this is the kind of Jesse Custer I can get behind after all.

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