Dominic Cooper as Jesse Custer in AMC's Preacher
Ruth Negga as Tulip O'Hare in AMC's Preacher
Joseph Gilgun as the vampire Cassidy in AMC's Preacher
Okay, sure….in its first two seasons, AMC’s Preacher has revealed that God decided to abandon humanity and is now wearing some sort of S&M latex dog suit in the back of a New Orleans bar.
And yes, according to the show, not only did Jesus lose his virginity, he’s got a 25th generation grandson that is the product of centuries of inbreeding. Meanwhile, let’s not forget the time when the show’s version of the Pope explained that God was busy creating a new, better version of his children and they’d all be 10 feet tall with a honey badger’s sense of smell.
Still, despite all of the apparent blasphemy, this series about a Texas minister’s (Dominic Cooper) search for the now-departed God with help of his gun-toting girlfriend (Ruth Negga) and their Irish vampire buddy (Joseph Gilgun) may actually be this generation’s twisted take on Highway To Heaven or Touched By An Angel.
“The whole show 100 percent operates under the concept that the Bible is true,” explains Seth Rogen, co-creator and executive producer of Preacher, which returned to AMC for a third season on Sunday, June 24.
“The whole show works with the premise that God is real and that there really is a heaven and a hell. It’s a lot easier to dissect an idea if you are buying into it rather than just trying to pretend it’s not got any validity. To me, that’s one of the most exciting things about this show. We get to explore religion under the umbrella that it’s all real.”
Adds executive producer Sam Catlin, “I never intended this to be a hit job on religion. That felt like it was just too super easy for a bunch of Hollywood liberals, writing how bad God is. That’s just not interesting or challenging to an audience.”
Of course, not everyone sees it that way. According to Rogen, Preacher has been squeezed from both sides. He’s heard from “from some people who I’d have never thought would see this show as something they’d like because of the subject matter but turned out to be big fans. And then there are those who have protested things like us showing Jesus’ sexual adventures, so I guess ultimately it’s a wash.”
Undaunted, Preacher operates in what Rogen considers “a grey area, where there are things not really accounted for in stricter translations of religious texts.” And no matter how outrageous the storylines get, the show’s core principles stick pretty much to the same central tenets that any denomination dabbles in.
Explains Catlin, “The themes of the show are things like, ‘What are we doing here?,’ ‘Who is God?,’ ‘What is our purpose on Earth?,’ ‘Is morality something that’s fixed or does it change?’….These are really interesting questions that everyone in their own way wonders about. That’s what makes Preacher so fun. We wonder about serious things but don’t take it all too seriously.”
“There’s right and wrong, good and bad, do this and don’t do that and realize that as you live your life, most everything and everyone falls somewhere in between that spectrum,” adds Rogen. “And that’s a space that’s largely not accounted for in structured religions.”
There’s really only one thing that he considers to be sacrilegious about working on Preacher – having to alter storylines from the show’s comic book source in order to make them better television.
Created by writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon, the 75-edition series was published from 1995 to 2000 and became legendary in comic book circles. Rogen and his producing partner, Evan Goldberg, fell in love with with it as teens and spent the better part of the past decade trying to turn it into a movie or series until AMC gave them green light in 2014.
“At first, it was a little shocking for my system to realize we had to change it,” explains Rogen. “But then, once Sam came on board and we started talking to Garth, who said, ‘Of course you have to change it! There’s not enough material in the comics.’ If we had stuck with the source material, we would have been over in two seasons because stories move very fast in comics.
"What we have now, I think, includes all the elements and we land in the same places the comic did but in unexpected ways. The major benchmarks of Garth’s work are the same major benchmarks of our show.”
The third season is a perfect example of that, says Catlin. The episodes begin with Cooper’s preacher character, Jesse Custer, returning to his mysterious family home for help from his evil, spell-casting grandma in bringing his dead girlfriend Tulip (Negga) back from the dead. (Because, yes, that’s the kind of stuff they do on Preacher.)
It’s a storyline that occurred much earlier on in the comics, but Catlin figured he had to lay plenty of groundwork first before introducing it to TV viewers unfamiliar with the source material.
“From the beginning, we figured that if you read the comic and there were certain characters and words you liked, we’d get to them but sometimes, you just have to wait for the things you want,” he says. “We wanted to exercise a little restraint. But even though we’ve had to invent and amend and adapt our stories along the way, this coming season will hew more closely to the comics than previous seasons because now we feel like we can.”
While he and Rogen admit they were prepared for their fellow Preacher comic fans to complain about the liberties the show has taken with the story and characters, they have been pleasantly surprised at how quickly fans of the books have adapted to the series.
That acceptance, Rogen believes, is probably because even though the basics might be different, the show does manage to capture the simultaneously silly, scary, scandalous and somber tone of Ennis’s comics.
“That’s the hardest part of our job, getting the tone right,” he says. “This show is tonally unlike anything else out there and that’s honestly why we thought we could do it. Tone is the most enjoyable area for me to play in, to balance comedy and horror and action and drama.
"When we decided to do this series, that’s what we talked about the most. How do we create an infrastructure that accommodates all these things at once?”
Tone may be the most frequent topic of discussion amongst the Preacher writing staff but apparently, God is a close second. Rogen says that there are “very religious people” working on the series and that leads to occasional discussions in the writers’ room that evolve into some major philosophical debates.
“(Those writers) find the show not at all offensive, and see it as asking questions of God and religion that are entirely appropriate to ask,” says Catlin. “If Preacher wasn’t getting other people’s feathers ruffled, we would all be doing our jobs wrong.”
Even if Sunday schooled TV viewers are worried about how the show might adversely affect their plumage, though, Rogen suggests they do one thing before running off to pray for his and his writing staff’s souls. Just tune in.
“I’m certain that anyone who watches even one episode of Preacher thinking it’s a cynical look at religion will be surprised”
Seasons One and Two of Preacher are available on Hulu, and Season Three is available on AMC On Demand and the AMC app.