A purple muscle car on a dusty road in Texas carries a vampire, a man of God and a very cool criminal, all in sunglasses, nonchalantly listening to the radio. Suddenly, huge letters stamp the screen: The Search for God, it flashes up, with all the grandiosity of a cinematic classic. If there is one thing you would never be able to accuse Preacher (Amazon Prime) of, it’s a lack of ambition.
After a well-received debut season, the deeply funny and revoltingly violent comic book adaptation is back for a full 13-episode run. Handily, for viewers yet to be charmed by its ostentatious mix of gore, black comedy and heaven-versus-hell superpowers, it ended season one with just enough finality to make starting here a possibility. In short: God has gone missing from heaven and hell has broken out on Earth, destroying the entire small town where the preacher of the title, Jesse Custer (a solidly moody Dominic Cooper), was based. Jesse is in possession of a power – an angel-demon hybrid called Genesis – which makes people do his bidding. In the first season, before he understands that Genesis prefers to work in a literal kind of way, this led to all sorts of shenanigans: telling someone to open their heart, for example, takes on a whole new meaning when thy will really will be done. You might call it the Midasshole Touch.
Since their hometown has been destroyed, Jesse, his girlfriend, Tulip (Ruth Negga), and an Irish vampire called Cassidy (Joe Gilgun) embark on the mother of all road trips, in an attempt to hunt down the big man upstairs. Unfortunately, a demonic cowboy from hell called the Saint of Killers, who looks like Brad Pitt as a character in Pirates of the Caribbean, is on their tail. Much of this opener is dedicated to showing the trail of destruction that follows wherever they go. More happens in the blockbuster-esque first 15 minutes than in most Hollywood movies, employing 70s cop-show visual cliches as a band of traffic police attempt to pull over Tulip’s car and suffer the consequences of trying to give an omnipotent preacher a speeding ticket.
As the fallout from a traffic violation demonstrates, Preacher truly is one of the most gruesome shows on television. There are severed limbs, exploding heads and an incident involving the siphoning of petrol via a human intestine. It is cartoonish gore, sure, but it still manages to elicit at least a wince, particularly in a throwaway scene involving a head being used to block a rolling car wheel. I attempted to hide my eyes when I saw what was coming. It was too late. Not since Game of Thrones’ Prince Oberyn has a human skull endured so much.
After the initial budget-busting shootout, though, the hunt for God takes a less expensive-looking, though no less entertaining, turn. That’s one of Preacher’s strong points – although it is perfectly content to go with the big set pieces when necessary, the dialogue is zippy enough to make every scene feel as if it is rocketing along. Much of that is due to the chemistry between the three leads, who bounce barbs off each other with effortless delight. Negga’s Tulip is cool and rational where the others are hot-headed; she questions the ethics involved in Jesse’s power, which she calls a “kinda smokey brain hen that makes you do things” (although she seems fine with instigating a car chase for fun that led to a crispy road full of dead policemen). But it is Gilgun’s Cassidy who walks away with every scene, whether it is arguing about the dubious practices of the beauty business or the industry-standard rules of a strip club when hunting for God in a bar called She-She’s. (God had passed through, but for the music rather than the girls.) In the early episodes, Gilgun was sometimes on the edge of overdoing it, but in giving him an emotional anchor via unrequited love for Tulip, he gets to show off a more measured range, and he is fantastic.
There has been a saturation of superhero programmes over the past couple of years, from Netflix’s Defenders stable to the stylistically similar Legion, and there are comparisons to be drawn, too, between Preacher and American Gods. They all share a fondness for flashy visuals, gimmicky, in-your-face violence and grand questions about the state of the world. Although Preacher does lapse into the occasional dude-bro moment (a demonic voice urges a policeman to “mace [his] balls”; Seth Rogen, who co-developed the series, also co-directed this episode, after all), its sense of humour allows it to carve its own niche, and what an enjoyable niche that is. Let the hunt for God begin.