sxsw-600x379Anyone doubting that the seminal 1990s comic series Preacher could be successfully translated for television may now consider their concerns moot. The pilot episode of the upcoming AMC series based on Garth Ennis’ lengthy, insane look at American culture that premiered today during SXSW turns out to be a textbook example of understanding the difference between the letter and the spirit of the law. Expanding on the comic’s philosophical themes while (for budgetary reasons) minimizing its scope, the series from exec producers Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Sam Catlin embraces the archetype-heavy world in which it takes place fully without, descending into either camp or self-seriousness.

The story follows Dominic Cooper as Jesse Custer, a reformed criminal badass now ekeing out a living as a small-town preacher in the dusty, West Texas town in which he grew up. Ill-suited for the job of moral guardian, he drinks himself into a dull, lazy hum to drown out his own violent tendencies while offering fairly terrible advice to his parishioners. That begins to change Preacherwhen his ex-girlfriend, a fellow criminal badass named Tulip (Ruth Negga), and an Irish vampire named Cassidy (Joe Gilgun) come to town.

Their arrival coincides with a massive case of divine intervention, as an unspecified entity of enormous spiritual power (comic readers know what it is, the rest of you I’ll leave unspoiled) makes it way across the world looking for a sufficiently religious and strong-willed host to live in. After inadvertently killing several religious leaders across the world — including, hilariously, a famous A-list actor I’ll leave unnamed — it finally settles on (you guessed it) Jesse. Suddenly, the preacher finds himself with the power to compel people to obey him just by speaking. And that’s just the first episode.

And yes, comic readers, Arseface is in it and does considerable justice to the bizarrely sympathetic character, thanks in part to the understated practical makeup effects used in lieu of CG.

Directed by Rogen and Goldberg and written by Catlin, the pilot — which screened for critcs at TCA in January — feels like the serious successor to Rogen and Goldberg’s earlier This Is The End, and fans of the comic will be very happy at how it balances that series’ intense, loopy insanity. But the pilot is also gorgeously directed, particularly evident in the choreography of its three fight scenes (each of the three principals gets one), and the sweaty, swampy aesthetic sure to make die hard Texans feel very much at home watching. Beginning with a trippy montage showing the spiritual thing‘s journey from heaven, through the solar system and finallyPreacher Joseph Gilgun Cassidy to a small church in Africa, where it causes the explosive death of its pastor, it settles for a while into a languid character study, yet turns on a dime into brutal, exploitative violence and slapstick.

Deadpool comparisons are going to be inevitable as a result: There’s even a scene in which Tulip has a bloody, no-holds-barred fight in a moving car while Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” plays on the stereo. But that’s a “great minds think alike” situation, as the pilot was filmed back in May. But in the wake of that film’s success and the increasing question of what other R-rated films could be spun off from the world of comics, Preacher seems perfectly situated to take that baton and run wild.

One thing to note: as I mentioned above, for budget reasons the scope of the first season is much more small scale than the comic’s first storyline. However, Rogen and Goldberg did hint during the post-screening panel discussion that should the show end up a hit and renewed, the series will get to where the comic’s story goes.

I wasn’t the only one floored: I’ve written a lot this week about the rapturous receptions given to the films I’ve seen, but Preacher is the first time I can honestly report the mood from the crowd was for all intents and purposes unanimous. The theater was absolutely packed (I had to stand in the back) and remained so after the screening ended and the audience Q&A began. If AMC execs were paying attention, they’re probably drooling over the prospect of a potential Walking Dead-sized hit on their hands when the series debuts May 22.