The Preacher and the President: Weekend TV Draws from History, Comic Books
LBJ and DC (comics) offer very divergent entertainment options.
All the Way. HBO. Saturday, May 21, 8 p.m.
Preacher. AMC. Sunday, May 22, 10 p.m.
For weeks I have been brooding about the imminent departure of my guiltiest television pleasure, Cinemax's purely bat-guano insane Banshee, a Parents Television Council anchovy-pizza nightmare of mangled organs and Amish nymphomania. (Not a typo.) It's a psycho crime drama that takes place in a tiny but diverse rural Pennsylvania town that is simultaneously home to the Russian Mob, the American Indian Mob, the Amish Mob, a Colombian cocaine cartel, an armed neo-Nazi bund, and a serial-killing Satanist coven. The town's female population is awesomely busty, relentlessly promiscuous and—if FBI agents—surprisingly receptive to the meditative potential of smoking crack. The interactions of these various demographics are lurid, sanguinary, and a serious challenge to theories of spontaneous order.
Alas, Banshee's geometrically progressing body count is bringing it to an end this weekend. The good news is I may have found a replacement. AMC's Preacher, a preposterous goulash of drunken vampires, exploding clergymen, and small town psychosexual kink, seems to share the same cheerily bedlamite DNA that made Banshee such a hallucinatory good time. I knew I was in for something special when a laconic church-goer, discussing the suicide of another parishioner, observed: "Cuttin' your own heart out, that's one thing. But doin' it in front of your own mom, that's strange."
Preacher is adapted from a book of the same name in the odd DC Comics line of action-theology titles that also produced FX's Lucifer, an aberrantly entertaining cop show in which Satan takes a break from Hell to join the LAPD.
Less high-concept and a bit more complicated to sort out, Preacher is set in a sun-blasted little town called Annville, lost in a forgotten corner of the West Texas desert where the favorite whiskey is called Ratwater and the idea of civic participation is lynching Pedro the Prairie Dog, the PC replacement for the high school's Chief Red Savage mascot.
Practically everything in Annville is dead or dying, including the tattered All Saints Congregational, recently taken over by a new minister, Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper, My Week With Marilyn) with an ecclesiastically dubious past (the townfolk speak, vaguely but ominously, of how he once "did things") and a primitive set of pastoral skills. Approached by one troubled member of his dwindling flock who wants to talk, Jesse demands: "Don't tell me you're here to bitch about the air conditioning." To be fair, the parishioners have not exactly wandered over from Going My Way, either; a son in need of help with an abusive father says he's not interested in counseling: "I want you to hurt him."
Custer's languid ministry is about to be disrupted by three forces converging on Annville: A slaughterous ex-girlfriend named Tulip (Ruth Negga, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), whose version of a Hallmark homily is that a woman must cultivate fortitude "so that on the day your love is selfish enough or weak enough or frickin' stupid enough to run away, you have the strength to track him down and eat him alive"; a substance-abusing Irish vampire known as Cassidy (BBC regular Joseph Gilgun), often amiable but given to outbursts inspired by his motto "wrath is love"; and a gang of burly men of uncertain intention but displaying an inauspicious affection for chainsaws.
Television these days is littered with comic-book adaptations, from the superheroes dominating The CW's primetime schedule to AMC's own impressive stable of post-apocalyptic zombies. But no show has aped the comics style as authentically as Preacher, with its garish violence and cunning ability to cram visual jokes into practically every frame. (Always keep an eye out when a sign or a TV screen comes into view in the background of a scene.)
In the opening episode alone, there are lethal impalements carried out with champagne bottles, corncobs, and little green plastic soldiers. You'll see more steaming intestines in 30 seconds than in an entire season of The Walking Dead. And let's not even get started on the steady stream of detonating ministers. Preacher is the sort of show where a character plops down in a car seat only to discover he's sitting on a severed ear, or where a little girl might gently reprove a stranger, "You aren't allowed to drive around just wreckin' stuff and killing people."
Beneath all the blood and bang-bang, Preacher—like its cousin Lucifer—is carrying on some kind of cockeyed theological debate with itself. Custer is possessed (perhaps literally) by the conviction that salvation is possible, that whatever he's done in the past, he can still become "one of the good guys" through faith and good works. Tulip is more of an armed Calvinist: "We did what we did. We are who we are. And that's it." I'm usually a free-will guy, but I suspect that in this case, I was pre-destined to watch and love Preacher.
The weekend's other notable adaptation is less successful. HBO's All The Way, a spirited account of the first year of Lyndon Johnson's presidency, is playwright Robert Schenkkan's reworking of his own Broadway play of the same name. The play in turn was heavily drawn from the The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, the fourth book of Robert Caro's planned five-volume biography.
All The Way follows Johnson from the moments after the assassination of John F. Kennedy that elevated him to the presidency to his own landslide election over Republican Barry Goldwater a year later. Mostly, however, it concentrates on Johnson's herculean efforts to resuscitate Kennedy's moribund civil-rights bill. Johnson's hardball strategy overcame an 83-day filibuster by Southern Democrats, enraged by what they saw as a treacherous betrayal by a faithful ally, and resulted in the most sweeping civil-rights legislation since the end of slavery.
This is an epic tale, and All The Way has some epic moments, all of them involving Bryan Cranston, the megalomaniac meth monarch of Breaking Bad, who plays Johnson. With the aid of prosthetics (including shoe lifts to boost his height) and artful makeup (to enlarge his nose and carve the worry lines of a long political life into his face), Cranston looks startlingly like Johnson.
More importantly, he brilliantly captures the essential characteristics of the political bullying that carried Johnson from a ramshackle Central Texas farm to the White House: His physicality, the way he leans in close to intimidate; his compulsive vulgarity, barking commands to a staff gathered around him as he did his business on the toilet; his ability to pivot from threats to cajolery in mid-sentence; and, perhaps most of all, his conviction that politics was a 24/7 endeavor that never ended. "Shit, this ain't about principles!" he shouts early in All The Way, a line that can fairly be said to sum up Johnson's entire life. "It's about goddam votes!"
Unfortunately, there are also a lot of epically failed moments as well, almost all of them related to Schenkkan's script, which paradoxically tries to cover too much while delivering too little. Instead of focusing exclusively on the battle over the civil rights bill, he tries to fold in the entire year of 1964, which included everything from the Gulf of Tonkin naval incident that launched full-scale American intervention in Vietnam to the arrest of a key Johnson aide caught performing a homosexual act in a public restroom weeks before the election that threatened (or so the president feared, anyway) to destroy his campaign.
The result is a pockmarked hodgepodge of a narrative that fails to provide the context that made Johnson's civil-rights efforts so stunning (prior to becoming president, Johnson had spent a decade as the architect of Southern Democrat strategy to gut countless civil-rights bills). More omissions follow until the entire production turns into a kind of political blooper reel in which Johnson commits the United States to a decade of war in South Vietnam in a two-sentence, over-the-shoulder comment to the secretary of defense as they walk down a crowded hallway.
There's also a pungent whiff of Kennedy hagiography to the script; it completely omits the attempts of holdover Kennedy aides to sabotage Johnson's presidency and even implies that the taps on Martin Luther King's phones that were actually ordered by Attorney General Robert Kennedy while his brother was still alive were really the product of the Johnson White House. Bottom line: I have to break the Golden Rule of Television Criticism and say, don't watch the show: Read the book.