On the first page of the first issue of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's Preacher, the series' three main characters—Reverend Jesse Custer, his ex-girlfriend Tulip, and the drunken vampire Cassidy—are chilling in a diner, trying to make sense of their lives to that point. It's here that Ennis, the writer of the series, hits you with a brilliant piece of dialogue:
Tulip: The way I hear it, there's two good places you can look for God: in church, or at the bottom of a bottle.
Jesse: Maybe I'll go find a liquor store, then...'cause lemme tell you: it sure as hell ain't the church.
While at the time it feels like one of those "it me" moments, it truly speaks to the heart of the series, and the AMC show that premiered last night. Do we deep dive into the world of The Church©, or are we just going to get fucked and try to survive via our own wits? It's the inner turmoil that Jesse battles both in the series and, so far, on the show.
In Preacher, the AMC television series, Jesse is at his wits end. He's the preacher of a church in Annville, Tex., at a time where he feels as far away from the church as one could possibly be while still wearing a preacher's collar. We meet him as he's giving a (pretty ineffective) sermon to a tiny congregation, and a child hand delivers him a beer post-service. This is far from the classic preacher character we're used to seeing, and that's before getting into the supernatural events that get the ball rolling in Preacher. Jesse not only inherits "the Word of God" (and is able to hold onto it, something that some of the world's foremost preachers—and Tom Cruise—aren't able to do), but embarks on a journey to see God, who has literally left his post in Heaven. This is a God abandoning his responsibility as the savior of the world, and Jesse's mission is to figure out why the Lord has resorted to such fuckery. It's heavy stuff, but it'd be silly (and easy) to cast away the Preacher comic series as just another anti-religion piece. This show is more about questioning, than dismissing.
"The thing is, is that even if you’re agnostic or atheist," Ruth Negga, who plays Tulip, says, "there is the ultimate question—why are we here?" It's one of the questions that, while not answered, is definitely screaming loudly in the first episode of Preacher. Jesse's searching for something. Who else is getting piss-drunk at night to wake up and portray a man of the cloth by day? Did you catch that smirk that Dominic Cooper loved during the "bunny noise" bar fight in the pilot? There's a sense of wrestling with his demons there; he's curbing his enthusiasm for violence, which everyone seems to know about but won't speak on. It's a familiar struggle for believers and agnostics alike.
"You’re following a man at the center of it who’s struggling with his faith, but is very faithful to it and desperate to reignite it," Cooper says. "I think that’s a conversation—people say, 'Religious people get offended.' I don’t think so. I think people who are devout believers will deal with it on a daily basis."
The idea that people who are, as Cooper says, "devout believers," would shun Preacher is the most frustrating of all. Sure, the show
dabbles dives head first into ultraviolence, but one could hope that the larger questions about organized religion could be addressed in this conversation, right? "Religion has been the source of so much ill in the world," Negga points out. "We can’t let go of our individual questioning—then we’re just going into things blind. It’s about that balance. That is one of the themes running through Preacher. Where is God? Why, if there is a God, why is this happening?"
Negga continues: "Garth isn’t shitting on religion. He’s encouraging us; he’s stimulating conversation about—what are we really doing with each other and to each other? Are we happy?"
In the Preacher comic series, we get introduced to the concept of what God is (at least in this world) relatively quickly, and it isn't pretty. That entity that inhibits Jesse? God's shook because this massive secret got out, and he literally leaves Heaven to live that creep life on Earth. Yes, there's literally no God in Heaven, which puts an interesting spin on things when you think about the thought of "God's plan" and free will. How fucked is our life if even God gets too shook to watch the throne?
It's one of the underlying themes in Preacher: what is God? What are we all doing here? Framing that question in a situation where, essentially, a fluke turned a preacher in Texas into a man who might be the only person on God's green Earth who could sit down and have a conversation with the man himself is intoxicating. The road will be bloody, and there will be casualties along the way, but most of our world's wars were fought over religion; why wouldn't we have a rowdy battle before getting a one-on-one with the man upstairs?