Preacher, the 66-issue comic book series from the nineties, is one of the better Texas stories ever told. Creators Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon create a sprawling epic exploring all parts of the state, plus matters of faith, mythology, Westerns, and Willie Nelson. Preacher is a road story that’s quick to blaspheme, but which tells its story with a surprising amount of heart—blending gross-out gags and proudly immature moments with a story that reconciles the traditional masculine American hero as someone who actually knows how to treat the women in his life. And on Monday, SXSW got to see it come to life in the world premiere of the AMC pilot episode.
The property has been in development for years—conceived at some point as both a film or as a TV show—without moving forward. (“We never got to pitch it—we would ask people if they were interested, and they would say ‘no,'” the show’s co-creator Evan Goldberg explained on the post-screening panel.) But Seth Rogen and Goldberg managed to place it with AMC, now set for a May debut. From the pilot it’s still unclear how faithful the TV adaptation will be to the source material, but we now have a much better idea of what AMC’s Preacher contains.
Preacher tells the story of Jesse Custer, a preacher in the small fictional West Texas town of Annville. When we meet Custer, he’s a man of little faith who is struggling to maintain his flock. And when we meet him on television, he’s a man of little faith struggling to maintain his flock. As he wallows through the dreary life of a man who clearly doesn’t really want to be a preacher, we meet the rest of the characters who matter: a hard-drinking Irish vampire named Cassidy who takes very little seriously, and Tulip, a woman from Custer’s past who wants him to return to a violent lifestyle he thought he could escape in Annville. We also get a glimpse of the mysterious villains who seem particularly interested in Custer, and a handful of the characters who populate Annville—a disfigured teenager with a dark secret, an abusive father with a grudge against Custer, and more.
The SXSW crowd reacted with a lot of enthusiasm. The premiere was held at the Paramount Theater—a 1,200 seat venue—and came pretty close to filling it up. Most of those attendees stuck around for the Q&A, which isn’t a surprise given the reception—when the word “Texas” appears on the screen in big letters early on, the cheer the crowd threw out made it clear that SXSW is the right sort of place for Preacher. Even the gorier bits of humor drew positive reactions from the crowd—there’s plenty of blood and guts in the pilot, and the show’s not afraid to leaven the more dramatic moments with some jarring violence.
The biggest difference between Preacher on AMC and the comic book is largely a difference in terms of setting: the comic book was a road story about a group of people who are literally searching for God, while the television show—at least in its first season, when the budget hasn’t ballooned to Walking Dead levels—is set in a single location. It’s also set in the present day, which means that some of the story details—Vietnam plays a big part in the original version—have been changed.
But the real question is where the heart of Preacher is going to be. The original comic book series is a melange of tones: It’s a story with a great deal to say about religion and masculinity and the types of myths that have defined our ideas of both, and it’s also a story in which a character is named “Arseface” and where one of the villains has an intimate relationship with a whole bunch of beef products. Preacher, in its previous form, has always seemed to appeal equally to fans who liked it for different reasons. Those who come for the fart jokes might hang around for the latent feminism, but that’s not necessarily why they’re here, and vice versa. Based on the pilot, it’s hard to know which parts of Preacher most interest creators Rogen and Goldberg, or showrunner Sam Catlin. The series could be very Deadpool, or it could be more Jessica Jones—but whatever it turns out to be, the pilot is compelling, watchable, and well-cast, which should buy it enough time to find itself. Ultimately, that’s the most you can hope for from the first episode in a series that’s intended to span whole lot of material.