Saturday, September 17, 2016

Idiot Boxing: Preacher, season 1; Stranger Things, season 1

The first issue of the original comic.
Getting a hold of this one required a
combination of fanboy zeal and a fair
bit of saved up bartending money.
Preacher, season 1 (2016)

I simply cannot write a review of this show without explaining my history with Preacher.

Two decades ago, I discovered a comic book that grabbed me unlike any other that had ever grabbed my comic-drenched brain. After reading some raves about it in a few nerd mags, I picked up issue #10 of Preacher. To make a long story short, after I read it multiple times, I put all of my financial efforts and free time into finding and purchasing every back issue as quickly as possible, so fun and novel was the story written by Irish scribe Garth Ennis, and so skillfully drawn was the tale by English artist Steve Dillon. I continued my ardent following, even going so far as to write several fan letters to the comic (I actually got a few of them published in the back of the monthly issues, much to my geekish delight) and meet and greet Ennis and Dillon at a couple of comic book conventions. The comic actually became as big a cult pop sensation as any comic ever had. Ennis was likened to the Quentin Tarantino of comic writing, and the book was getting endorsements from '90s pop creators like Kevin Smith and others. Occasionally rumors would surface of a movie or TV adaptation, but it all seemed rather unlikely, as the comic was so wildly violent and irreverent towards Christianity (and nearly everything else held dear by "civilized" folks).

Flash forward to 2015, when I discovered that AMC, the channel behind monster hit TV shows Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and others, had optioned the story for adaptation to be aired in 2016. I couldn't suppress a smile, as I felt that time and environment might actually be ripe enough for a proper cinematic telling of the insanely entertaining story that Ennis and Dillon gave us in comic form. In anticipation, I went back and re-read the entire comic series, and while it doesn't have quite the same magic as back when I discovered it, it is still a fun, original, and crazy tale. But how, exactly, would such a bonkers story translate to TV?

For those unfamiliar, the story follows Jesse Custer, a Christian reverend in the fictional small west Texas town of Annville. Jesse is a tortured soul who struggles with trying to be a classic "good guy" in the mold of hero cowboys popularized in U.S. narrative mythology (he reveres the types of characters that John Wayne played in his best movies) but also be a good and loving Christian. While he is in a position of religious authority, he has a very dark and wild past, and these two parts of his life seem to be in constant battle with one another. One day, while at his parish in Annville, he is violently possessed by some sort of supernatural entity which grants him the power to compel others to do whatever he tells them. Added into this strange mix is an Irish vampire, Cassidy, and Jesse's wild ex-girlfriend Tulip. All three are swept up in bizarre forces with a serious interest in the power that Jesse now wields.

My history with Preacher makes it impossible to see it with fresh eyes, in any form. I realized this going in, but I could not have anticipated just how liberally the show writers would be with their re-arrangement of many of the elements of the story. The result is something that, to the uninitiated, will be a bizarre and rollicking TV show with very much its own style.

Jesse and Cassidy, having a cold one. Cooper and Gilgun are
great in their roles, though there are a few odd turns in their
actions which are not always coherent.
But therein lies the problem. Style. I found that, in the TV adaptation of Preacher, style overwhelmed more important elements of good stories, be they in a written, aural, or visual medium. The creators certainly had a good sense of how to cut striking images and craft some very memorable scenes and sequences. The problem is that I often felt that there was a lack of cohesion, both within individual characters and between their various actions, interactions, and reactions to each other. In early episodes, Jesse makes odd shifts from being a man wracked with doubts to being a classic southern badass, with often little to no indication of what triggers the change. Nearly every other character suffers from similar lack of integrity. Tulip lets Cassidy have sex with her for no apparent reason. Cassidy shows a flash of remorse for reasons completely unclear. Emily, the upstanding soccer mom and parish assistant, literally feeds her part-time lover and town mayor to Cassidy from out of nowhere. I certainly don't mind stories where wild and unpredictable actions take place, but there has to be some consistency to the characters themselves. Otherwise, it is very difficult to feel invested in them, as they become shoddy constructs with whom we cannot identify.

This slightly schizo feel aside, I generally liked the show, thanks in no small part to the acting. The casting and performances are as good as I could have hoped. Dominic Cooper does Jesse's character a ton of justice, and Joseph Gilgun makes an incredible Cassidy. While I'm still not completely sold on what they are doing with the Tulip character, Ruth Negga nails every line and scene with the power and toughness that the role demands. Even many of the secondary roles are played to great effect, most notably Jackie Earle Haley as the despicably twisted Odin Quincannon. And even beyond the characters, there are some hilariously clever sequences during the season. One of my favorites involved a chainsaw, a dismembered arm, and a really odd fight in the middle of Jesse's church.

The show does set a rather insane tone, which makes it easier to accept some crazy, inexplicable things. It is for this reason that I'll be giving season 2 a shot. The way the first season ended, the primary characters are forced to hit the road, which should bring up plenty of other opportunities for bizarre, episodic happenings. It seems fairly clear that the show runners have a long-term plan in order, not unlike other AMC hit show Breaking Bad, and I saw enough to bring me back for the start of the sophomore season.

This group of kids was great, to a person. They would have
fit right into Spielberg's best PG flicks from the '80s. 
Stranger Things, season 1 (2016)

I'm generally not a fan of shows that use nostalgia as a device, but Stranger Things is a major exception in my eyes. The show was a wonderfully entertaining trip back to late-'70s and early-'80s science-fiction and horror films.

Using some of the best horror and fantasy movies as inspiration for tone, Stranger Things follows a group of young children as they deal with a friend mysteriously disappearing. The friends, along with a handful of concerned but scattered local adults, slowly uncover increasingly bizarre elements to the disappearance, including its seeming connection to a nearby power company. Saying much more will spoil the fun of the story's primary revelations, so most of it is best left untold. Suffice it to say that, while the plot elements are not completely novel, the form they take and the combination and mixture of them together is extremely satisfying.

A big part of the show's feel is connected to its time - the early 1980s. The directors, the Duffer brothers, quite clearly wanted to offer the look and feel of the mot classic TV shows and movies from that same era from directors like John Carpenter and, much more obviously, Steven Spielberg. If the creepy tone and horror elements come from Carpenter, then nearly everything else is inspired by Spielberg, most notably his films E.T. and The Goonies. The focus on a group of misfit, pre-pubescents is right in line with the most successful PG-13 blockbusters of that day, and everything from the clothing and dialogue right down to the set designs and props would be right at home in an episode of Amazing Stories.

Lest you think that nostalgia is the main thing going for this show, rest assured that it is not. The pace and flow of the tale is masterfully unfolded, the acting is excellent, and there is an expert balance between terror, tension, humor, and adventure. I have to believe that this is a difficult mixture to get right, even when working from preexisting materials, but the Duffers pulled it off.

The only minor gripe I have is that the show did leave a few not-so-small questions unanswered, clearly setting up a second season. This is fine, I suppose, but I would have appreciated a more self-contained story told within a single season, something that is a rarity these days. But this hardly kills what was otherwise a really fun show. I'll be eagerly anticipating the next season.