Preacher, on paper, seemed like a television pitch that didn’t have a prayer. The fact that Sunday night marked the end of the fourth and final season of the AMC series from executive producers Sam Catlin (Breaking Bad) and Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg (Neighbors, Pineapple Express, Superbad) would qualify as a miracle if the show’s brimstone scent and penchant for the profane didn’t disqualify it from general competition.
For four seasons, the show followed the wild-eyed quest of Dominic Cooper’s Jesse Custer, the West Texas preacher with a grim job history. His entire flock in West Texas was flattened and killed (in the aptly named town of Annville, no less) when he became possessed by a supernatural entity (who turned out to be the offspring of an unnatural coupling between an angel and a demon).
What ensued after that Season 1 calamity became an existential search with the Biblical dread of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the surreal acid-trip tangents of Natural Born Killers — as well as a character named Arseface, which sets an admirable precedent among all major American television productions.
Custer’s bizarre quest across America to find God has taken some deranged twists and perverse turns over the past three seasons as he was joined by a sharp-shooting ex-girlfriend named Tulip (Ruth Negga); a boozy, Irish vampire named Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun); and Arseface (Ian Colletti), whose unfortunate nickname was earned by the puckered facial wound he suffered in a shotgun suicide attempt. The cast also includes Pip Torrens, Julie Ann Emery, Noah Taylor, Graham McTavish, Mark Harelik and Tyson Ritter.
Catlin said the creators of the show didn’t want a watered-down version of the End Times saga – in fact they preferred one drenched in blood and hitched to heresy. “I remember when I first saw Family Guy, that was my reaction was, ‘What the f*ck, how the hell did someone let this get on the air?’ That’s the reaction, hopefully, that Preacher got from more than a few people along the way, too. I’m pretty sure that happened quite a bit.”
The show was jarringly off-kilter when it premiered and an early representative among the still-building wave of comics adaptations that are gleefully subversive, savagely violent and, in many cases, surprisingly heartfelt. Netflix’s Jessica Jones, Amazon’s The Boys, DC Universe’s Doom Patrol, Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, and, soon, HBO’s Watchmen all qualify as superhero members of the subversive sub-genre parade while Syfy’s Happy and Preacher are comic book imports that skip the powers or costumes and stick with hot-mess heroes in reality-bending free-fall.
TV’s subversive sub-genre is getting more crowded all the time, Catlin says, due to Hollywood’s ongoing big-screen obsession with superhero blockbusters.
“As comic book movies have become so front and center I guess it was inevitable that television would come around to take the piss out of it at some point,” Catlin said. “I think both genres seem to be surviving…people still love the straight-up comic book movie adaptations. There’s an appetite for that.”
Catlin acknowledged that the finale included one major change that veered from the source material, the brilliant, namesake comic book series (1995-2000) by writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon that was published by Vertigo, the esteemed imprint of DC Comics that also gave the world The Sandman, Y: The Last Man, Lucifer and Fables. (DC Comics just retired the imprint, which last year celebrated its 25th anniversary.)
The change was one of omission – leaving out a subplot that would have defanged Cassidy at the show’s finish line.
“The big difference in terms of the ending is that Cassidy made some kind of bargain for his mortality with God, it was some kind of side deal that Cassidy made with God that we didn’t do. We didn’t want to make that part of the equation in the show because, well, I guess we didn’t want Cassidy at the end of his journey to suddenly become something other than he is – which is a vampire.”
Catlin said there was also a more subtle change, an aesthetic choice that might be described as a horse swap.
“In the end in the comic book, for Jesse and Tulip, they literally ride off into the sunset, I’m pretty sure, on a horse together,” Catlin said. “We wanted to be sure we saved that sentimentality and that spirit of an old-fashioned Hollywood happy ending for them. But we just didn’t put them on an actual horse.”
The show’s central tale is a deceptively simple one, but fans know that the complexities of the saga reveal themselves throughout the series — they are tucked half-hidden into the backstories of the show’s bizarre characters and roiling beneath the surface of its quest dynamics. Some things didn’t change over the course of four seasons. The show’s fever-dream universe felt bat-sh*t crazy on first examination and that was holding strong during Sunday’s swan song.
“The colors are the big challenge of the show and it has all these different genres and it has silly violence and real violence and all these different things imported from the comic book and layers added on top of that as well,” Catlin said.
Rarely do television shows center on a modern-day person trying to meet their maker – and that “maker” as in God, not as in “show creator” – and rarer still is the show where that quest is completed successfully. Supernatural also had a showdown with God in its season finale, too, but it’s doubtful the “deity drop-in” will be challenging weddings, babies, and the other traditional go-to fodder for finales. Catlin said the search for a higher power is a tough undertaking to convert into a briskly paced screen story with real peril, relatable characters, and immediacy.
“The story is about Jesse being on the heels of someone for four seasons and how do you keep that immediate and urgent? That’s the real big challenge,” Catlin said. “How do you make someone who is “looking for God,” quote, unquote, stay immediate and become visceral. As opposed to being metaphorical or an idea. The hardest thing to crack was how to make a guy literally looking for God [into something] thematic…it’s a hard show to turn your head around unless you watch it and really get into it.”