Tuesday, May 24, 2016

From the pulpit


Last week, one of the guys on the board asked me if I'd be interested in doing some reviews/critiques of Preacher, since it's based on the comic of the same name by Garth Ennis.and Steve Dillon. I said that I was a little reluctant, since the series, while good, had failed to really reach "classic" status with me because the story ended up being less about the high concepts that initiated it and more about "being cool" and/or shocking. The story began with Jesse Custer, the preacher in question, asking essential questions about human nature and its relationship to the unknowable and how that combination generated things as disparate as kindness and savagery, righteousness and hypocrisy. But what it ended up veering into was more like a parade of shocking moments, handled with blasé aplomb by most of the main cast, that didn't really invest in any of those high-minded concepts.

If you've ever seen Ocean's Eleven (either version), you'll know what I'm talking about. The film(s), while entertaining, are basically just an excuse for a dozen A-listers to get together and hand scenes off to each other and have a good time. Their entire reason for being on screen is to "be cool." That might be fun to watch, but it's also not much of a story. Preacher, the comic, ended up being a lot like that. I read the whole series, but I can't tell you anything about the last year of it because it really didn't matter by then. So when I saw the trailers and ads begin appearing for AMC's Preacher adaptation, I kind of cringed at the thought of what they could and couldn't do. AMC has been pretty reliable in developing intelligent shows that stick to their overarching themes (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, etc.) and in keeping the writing and story pretty intelligent. Would they be able to do that with what I considered an entertaining but essentially flawed product?


Right off the bat, I was a little cagey about Dominic Cooper as Jesse. When the show opens, the impression I got wasn't that he was questioning himself and his place in the world but more that he was... weak. This wasn't the supremely self-assured Jesse Custer that I remembered, who used that confidence to mask so many stories about his past and his family that he'd rather forget. This was someone who was on shaky ground, period. But by the time he was beating the shit out of Donny (Shut the fuck up, Donny!; What happens when the Confederate Army is beaten by a Texan?), I was more comfortable with him. I still think he lacks a bit of the gravitas necessary to really pull off the moments when he uses The Word, but we'll see how he does. As much as Tulip and Cassidy play major roles in the story, it revolves around Jesse and the entity inside him, which makes for a big role to carry. Nothing that he's done before will compare to this.


Similarly, Ruth Negga as Tulip struck me as an odd choice. The key to Tulip was that, although she was hard as nails, the way that Dillon drew her in the comic simply screamed "femininity". The two aren't completely exclusive but, again, it would be a difficult role to pull off for a TV audience. I actually like that writers/directors Seth Rogen (yes, that Seth Rogen) and Evan Goldberg used what may be interpreted as a gratuitous shot of Negga's shapely ass in a shadowed window to express some of that femininity, since the rest of her appearance was nothing but hardcore, including her opening as she struggled with and murdered two men in a speeding car over a meth deal. I think that display of the feminine arcs more toward "sexuality", but there's nothing wrong with that, especially since her relationship with Jesse in the earlier part of the story is fairly combative and creates dramatic tension between the two that will only become more obvious if she's presented as a woman, rather than the boy her father raised. It just so happens that this woman can beat you in a fistfight, if she doesn't decide to kill you first.


And Cassidy, well... I think Joe Gilgun actually hit the mark right away. It takes a while for Cassidy as a character to become something other than a stereotype, as weighted down as he is by so many things (vampire, drunk Irishman, parasitic addict) that we've seen time and again. In that respect, yes, Gilgun was those things. Does that make him more or less appealing for future episodes? I guess that depends on just how interested the showrunners are in retaining the tragedy of the storyline that he embodied in the comic (Can you tell I'm dancing around spoilers here? Yes, I am.) Believe me when I say that there's a lot more to Cassidy than his panoply of stereotypes, but it will heavily depend on AMC and the writers' willingness to engage.

The rest of the cast was decent for the limited time they had and, yes, it was thrilling to see W. Earl Brown (Dan Dority from the long-lamented Deadwood) make his return to a role (Sheriff Hugo Root) that might actually have some meat on it, as opposed to the boilerplate he was given in the utterly forgettable True Detective, season 2. The most interesting development may have been the introduction of Emily Woodrow (Lucy Griffiths) as the apparent lone "straight" among the crowd of the disjointed. There is a fair amount of story that can be mined from having a character who reacts to things with some degree of shock/fear/disdain so that we can be introduced to the world of the disjointed along with her. But that also removes the show from the realm of things like Carnivale (to name another long-missed HBO production), where everyone was weird and you were just invited to look in to their world. Perhaps Emily is the showrunners' way of keeping to the themes that I felt that Ennis lost in the comic? That's feasible, since she does seem to be intended as a grounding element for Jesse. I just hope it doesn't descend to something pedantic.


In the end, my only real complaint was about Arseface, which seems appropriate for the guy who's suffered the most among the cast. The actor (Ian Colletti) was fine, but I think the production kind of dropped the ball on the prosthetics. What we got wasn't nearly as interesting as what we'd seen before although, admittedly, trying to translate Dillon's artwork to "reality"


is going to be a difficult task for just about anyone and would involve a much larger time investment on the part of both makeup and the actor (and a lot more money) to pull off in a way that would be fitting. "Don't mind losing a section of your jawline for this role? Great! You'll be famous!"

So, yeah, overall not a bad start. It's definitely worth watching a second episode, unlike, say, Constantine. Or TD season 2.

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