It’s really saying something when a new TV show can, in a single hour, take a weary critic from “Please, Lord, not another series based on a comic book” to a sense of giddy awe and a few hearty hallelujahs, but that’s precisely what the first episode of AMC’s “Preacher” did. It’s a deliriously weird set-up, in which an invisible, interstellar gob of God-like goo lands on Earth, with otherworldly creatures (angels? demons?) in hot pursuit.
After trying out a few human vessels — an African minister, an Orthodox priest and super-Scientologist Tom Cruise, all of whom explode to bloody pieces once they are deemed unworthy hosts — the strange presence settles into a hard-drinking, spiritually bankrupt preacher named Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) who is trying to hold together a small-town Protestant church in West Texas that was once tended to by his murdered father.
Based on a critically acclaimed comic-book series from the 1990s, “Preacher” (premiering Sunday), reflects the sort of love and layered complexities that only a fanboy can provide. Although it apparently deviates in certain ways from its source material, “Preacher” is packed with campy gore and cruel humor. The first episode includes a couple of stunning action sequences, such as when an Irish vampire, Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun), fights off a team of vampire hunters while on a private jet, eventually bailing out at 25,000 feet and splat-landing in Preacher Jesse’s town, becoming an ally of sorts.
Another thrilling set piece introduces Preacher’s ex-girlfriend and former partner in crime, Tulip O’Hare (Ruth Negga, the cast’s standout), as she fights off two mob goons while trying to take the wheel of a muscle car careering through a Kansas cornfield. “Preacher,” which includes film actor Seth Rogen among its executive producers, eagerly displays a Tarantino-esque flair for action and absurdity — and for a while the tone of the show is a perfect pairing of a provocative comic-style narrative and cable-TV sensibility.
The energy level flags a couple of episodes in, however. “Preacher,” which feels very much like a story concocted while passing around a bong in a dorm room, has no problem acing its science-fiction and film-appreciation classes, but it struggles with philosophy and theology — the serious side of its tale. Preacher Jesse’s inner turmoils (besides the fact that he’s hosting some sort of raw energy that allows him to control other people) are presented as a crisis of faith, reflected back at him in the sorry spiritual state of his friends and neighbors.
While visiting the mother of a woman whose daughter is in a vegetative state, Preacher fails at the art of authentic consolation. “That casserole you brought is worth more than [your] words,” she says with utter derision. “At least when you’re gone I can feed it to my dogs.”
“Preacher” is rife with glimpses of human ugliness and moral rot, heavily emphasized with dust-blown desert tropes and a permanent twang that’s always meant to evoke the inertia of remote landscapes. The show’s instinct for the supernatural is much more impressive than its sense of its main character’s desire to know God. “Preacher” struggles to depict the challenges of ministry, relying mainly on cliche — which is disappointing, given the show’s title and central idea.
Much of the first four episodes are spent untangling a convoluted premise (“Preacher” is in no apparent hurry to explain its basic mythology or connect some major dots) and offers only the barest glimpse at some essential backstories that would help viewers follow along. It all seems like protracted set-ups for a much bigger, cosmic conflict that will have Preacher and his friends at its center, but a viewer gets no indication of how far off that is. New characters keep popping up before we can get a sense of who they are or why (or if) they’re important; in some ways, it can seem as if you’ve joined the show midway through the first season.
This, too, is a post-Tarantino fallback — shifting backward and forward in time, waiting for plot threads to loop all the way back around in a way that’s intended to be freaky and fun.
But while “Preacher” is doing that (and often doing it with a nice style), the congregation could be forgiven for dozing off — especially those who haven’t already read the scripture. Or, in this case, all the issues of the comic book.
Preacher (one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC.