Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper, “Marvel’s Agent Carter”) stumbles through a sermon, all while bumbling through a football analogy, shuffling through handwritten pages and discovering his last paper is missing. His congregation — to put it nicely — is disinterested (a few play on their iPads). Jesse is far from an inspiring preacher — in fact, he’s terrible.
However, after service, a young boy approaches Jesse and asks the preacher to hurt his wife-beating father. “People said before you were a preacher, you did things,” the boy says. Jesse, a man who struggles to preach any message of salvation, leans forward and gives a stirring sermon of brutality before warning the boy, “Violence makes violence makes nothing much at all.”
Jesse knows the dark side of life far better than he knows the light, but he wants to emerge out of the world’s shadows. But, as “Preacher”’s pilot attests, the temptation of the nastier side of life proves to be incredibly hard to deny.
Based on Garth Ennis’s comic series of the same name, “Preacher” presents a wild world that borders on chaotic. Amid all of the chaos is the figure of Jesse, a man trying to bring order to his life and to the small town of Annville, Texas. Jesse wants to do things the right way, as he tries to handle the abusive Donnie Schneck (Derek Wilson, “Rectify”). But, it all fails — the sheriff (W. Earl Brown, “True Detective”) cares about getting reelected too much and even Schneck’s wife, Betsy (Jamie Anne Allman, “The Killing”), says she “likes” the beatings.
Bringing Ennis’s controversial source material to television are the directing and producing pair of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (“This is the End”), and showrunner Sam Caitlin (“Breaking Bad”). The trio forms a world where the moral struggle and the twisted, perverse and perplexing tighten their grip on the world. While characters like Jesse may be working through crises, a dark sense of humor and levity punctuates the pilot, preventing it from becoming a dour affair.
Often providing this comedic element are both the Irish vampire, Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun, “Misfits”), and Jesse’s former flame, Tulip (Ruth Negga, “Warcraft”), who both enter (or re-enter) Jesse’s life at his lowest point. While “Preacher” frames Jesse’s introduction through his struggles to live a peaceful life, Cassidy and Tulip enter the series completely in their element — violence. Whether it’s Cassidy’s airplane brawl with a group of vampire hunters or Tulip’s high-speed cornfield assassination, “Preacher” frames its action with a kinetic energy that captures the intoxicating element of unabated viciousness. Meanwhile, the two performers bring an inherent charm to their lawless characters. Gilgun imbues Cassidy with a wry unpredictability, leaving viewers guessing as to what the vampire will do next — like create a flamethrower out of an air freshener or jump out of a mile-high plane. Negga gets to be a firebrand while playing off of Cooper well in their few scenes together. “Tell me you don’t miss it,” Tulip drawls to Jesse as they ponder their past.
Jesse is followed by the person he once was and the dark path he followed. In the clash of morality, the preacher finds himself wandering in the middle, wanting to do good but haunted by the bad. But, in the world of “Preacher,” maybe that’s what people need — a shepherd to herd the flock but also to fight off the wolves. Cooper captures Jesse’s conflict well as he continually struggles to accomplish anything by the book. However, there’s only so much wallowing one can do, and when the pilot forces Jesse to throw out the book, Cooper truly shines. Out of options, and possibly a little drunk, Jesse confronts the unrepentant Donnie and does what he does best — beats the living shit out of the wife beater and his Confederate uniform-wearing friends in a visceral bar scrap. As a small smile cracks Jesse’s usually grim demeanor, Tulip’s words begin to ring true —“We are who we are, Jesse Custer.”
Jesse is far from perfect, but he knows it. And in a world where the bad can so easily assert themselves over the weak, perhaps it takes an imperfect man to walk the line between good and evil, instead of fully embracing one side. Throughout the pilot, an invisible extraterrestrial spirit works its way around the world, possessing and blowing up various spiritual leaders (Christians, Satanists and Tom Cruise) until finally finding a host in Jesse. What this means for the small town preacher is still unknown to many as he takes to the pulpit again, perhaps finding the place he truly belongs. But then again, maybe not.