Religion is simple, structured. There are rules and stations guiding believers through a life map, promising assistance along the way and a giant reward at the end. It could be one-way ticket up to Heaven, the achievement of Nirvana, or a key to The Good Place. Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) spells this out succinctly in the season finale of Starz’s “American Gods” when he explains the covenant between gods and humans. “Want to know how to make good things happen? Be good to your god,” Wednesday says. “You give a little, you get a little. The simplicity of that bargain has always been appealing.”
Faith is a somewhat different animal. Faith involves trust in the unknown, the removal of doubt. And maintaining a sliver of sacred mystery can be beneficial, as Jesse Custer, the title character of AMC’s “Preacher,” discovered to his horror at the end of the action series’ first season. Jesse wanted answers, and received them. Because of that, he has utterly lost his faith.
Jesse (Dominic Cooper) isn’t a holy man, or even particularly devoted. The clerical collar he wears is primarily a fashion statement these days. But Jesse holds the power to exert near-absolute influence over others by simply issuing a directive. This is a side effect — a lease payment, if you will — of being occupied by a being of mysterious origin called Genesis, which came to Jesse as he was on the precipice of losing his religion completely.
When season 2 of “Preacher” kicks off Sunday at 10 p.m., Jesse knows God exists, but this confirmation actually shreds his sense of reverence instead of strengthening it. What good does it do to receive confirmation that God is real, only to find out he’s left the building?
Hence Jesse heads out on a road trip to find the Almighty with the help of his dangerous girlfriend Tulip (Ruth Negga) and their loyal friend Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun), who happens to be a vampire.
Theirs is not a serene, soul-cleansing pilgrimage. In “Preacher,” every road leads to violence. Crossing paths with Custer, Tulip and Cassidy is a sure way to hasten one’s end, and with a spurt and a squish. Since Custer is determined to hold God responsible for abandoning humanity — and as far as he knows, he has the power within him to do just that — there will be blood on that highway. In fact, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that the scarlet flow begins mere minutes into the season premiere. Jesse has no intention of being good to his God.
What’s more, they’re being hunted by a heartless gunslinger known as the Saint of Killers (Graham McTavish).
Life is cheap in “Preacher,” and the action is as mordantly hilarious as the humor is obscene. The soundtrack, too, is utilized to highly ironic effect; one pulse-quickening sequence in the season opener might even vindicate the one-hit wonder that is Dexys Midnight Runners.
And “Preacher” is an odd counterweight to the recently concluded freshman season of “American Gods,” both terms of tone and their respective approaches to the ideas of worship and deities. The Starz series is visceral in its own right, but creators Bryan Fuller and Michael Green carefully crafted their adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel to mirror the outsized nature of religious story and myth. Blood, when it’s spilled, is realized as a visually sumptuous intoxicant, suitable for offering to supernal beings.
The divine entities in “American Gods” are arrogant, needy and petulant, but they also dust all of existence in their gorgeous magic. Odin casually blows dandelion fluff into the air in an early episode, and winds carry it into the clouds. Such a little flourish, and one that comes back around, electrified, in the finale.
“Preacher,” on the other hand, revels in its sacrilege and bathes its slaughter in comedy. Gore is an indulgence for which it makes no apologies; the drama’s emphasis on it is a reminder that for all of humanity’s aspirations toward the infinite we are just clumsy, fragile sacks of meat. This hews closely to the vision writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon (who serve as co-executive producers on the TV series) illustrated on the pages of the 1990s comic books upon which the series is based.
And if you’re keeping up with the show’s events, the second season basically begins where the 1995 comic kicks off. Many series explode the storylines forged in previous seasons; “Preacher” does that literally. Creators and executive producers Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and showrunner Sam Catlin made the first season the tale’s backstory, which is why they were able to make “Preacher” work where so many other directors and producers could not — Sam Mendes, Kevin Smith, Mark Steven Johnson, and Howard Deutsch among them.
The comic book version of “Preacher” travels the country within its first few chapters, flying to otherworldly realms for good measure, dropping readers into the action midstream after many things have already happened. How does anyone corral that into a screen-worthy narrative? The answer: you can’t. So wisely Catlin, Rogen and Goldberg made the first season the tale’s backstory. And once that’s established, they dust off their hands and move on. The latest turn of events ensures there’s no turning back for this trio.
Rogen and Goldberg, who directed the season 2 premiere written by Catlin, continue to imbue the action with enough slapstick to keep viewers from taking almost everything they’re seeing too seriously. This cartoonish approach to carnage is amplified in this second season when, shortly into the action, spilled guts are put to horrible use out of necessity.
Provided a viewer embraces the drama’s farcical butchery, she may easily be seduced by this cast. Gilgun’s performance as the comic foil to Cooper’s Jesse remains one of the best things about “Preacher.” Negga is sublime (what else is new?) but she also makes her tiny frame pack a wallop in the show’s meticulously choreographed fight scenes.
Her chemistry with Cooper gels more completely this season now that their characters have moved past dancing on the lengthy hair that splits love and hate, adding meaningful stakes to a couple of plot developments alluded to in the season premiere, foreshadowing the comic books’ fans may spot straightaway.
But one concept I’m curious to see “Preacher” explore is the value of existence. We get a tease of this in the tragically entertaining reappearance of the angel Fiore (Tom Brooke), who came to Earth with a fellow angel to capture Genesis and, in his failure, ended up stuck here. The Saint of Killers is the foe Genesis and Jesse require, but he’s also a physical manifestation of soulless chaos and death.
In the quest to find a reason for it all, he’s a reminder to the lapsed faithful that sometimes the simple act of breathing is enough of a reason to keep going. And when the rubber hits the road, that’s really the only true thing a person needs to believe.