Warning: Spoilers from season one ahead.
We live in the golden age of hicksploitation. Poor Southern whites are one of the last demographics that remain perfectly acceptable as caricature. Although it's long been second nature for Hollywood to imagine everything south of the Mason-Dixon as a netherworld of clapboard houses, laconic small-town sheriffs, and greasy spoons, a subgenre of post-antebellum pulp has cropped up all over television and movies in the past decade. Perhaps it's partially to compensate for a century of broad stereotypes, egregious and ongoing whitewashing, and tokenism, but this current variety of hicksploitation seems to say, "How do you like it, whitey," which is not to say that it's a totally new phenomenon. Night of the Hunter (1955) is arguably the origin of the species, with its Flannery O'Connor–esque showdown between a mad preacher and a gun-toting granny, followed in the 1970s by the banjos-of-doom-and-squeal-like-a-pig aesthetic of Deliverance.
But the mass appeal of red-state sensationalism feels like a contemporary outgrowth, in that half the country really does believe that the other half is crazy, and while that craziness might not be good for the republic, it does make for great B-movie entertainment. Remarkably supple—and frequently featuring its herald, Matthew McConaughey—recent hicksploitation includes the gothic, Eggleston-like bayou photography of True Detective, the "kiss my grits" supernaturalism of True Blood, The Paperboy's high camp, Django's black-comic lampoon of historical atrocity, the river rat nobility of Mud, the trailer-park mollusks of Squidbillies—and now the best of the bunch, AMC's Preacher, which aired its season finale Sunday, and in which Dixie mythology reaches lurid new heights of absurdity.
Developed by writer/producing team Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg with Breaking Bad veteran Sam Caitlin, Preacher can boast the grand-slam combination of blistering Texas wasteland, over-the-top violence, outlaw country swagger, and a joyously absurd plot that, in one scene, pits two angels in cowboy hats against a chainsaw-wielding vampire. In the first season, we see a mob of Civil War reenactors, a fistfight between the mascot of local sports team the Red Savages and his more culturally sensitive replacement Pedro the Prairie Dog, a hell-bound cowboy, a dude who gets his dick shot off then cradles it like a class pet, and an exploding Tom Cruise. What's not to like?
That said, the tone is initially hard to pin down. Preacher's first season is set in the fictional Annville, where Reverend Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) becomes possessed by a mysterious deity called Genesis, whose superpower-of-suggestion he tries to harness to better to tend his flock, which includes an inspired ensemble of grotesques like a plucky teenager whose face resembles an anus thanks to a botched suicide attempt and Jackie Earle Haley as slaughterhouse mogul Odin Quinncannon, who has spurned the church for worship of the "god of meat." (There is also a laconic small-town sheriff.) Are we supposed to sympathize with these miscreants? Or are they there for us to laugh at? And the hard-drinking, ex-criminal Jesse Custer himself, with his incongruously tousled hipster hairdo, are we meant to see him as a conflicted man of God or a hypocrite?
In the first season, we see a mob of Civil War reenactors, a fistfight between the mascot of local sports team the Red Savages and his more culturally sensitive replacement Pedro the Prairie Dog, a hell-bound cowboy, a dude who gets his dick shot off then cradles it like a pet, and an exploding Tom Cruise. What's not to like?
The storyline is similarly all over the road. Subplots stutter and stall; episodes are frequently unfocused; the unrelenting extremity eradicates any trace of plausibility; and Custer's parishioners frequently act out of character, as when a hitherto meek organist casually feeds her nudnik boyfriend to a vampire. Weirdly, this looseness turns out to be Preacher's strength: There's more mayhem here than anything else on television, and the more it assures us that it doesn't give a shit about crutches like continuity, pacing, or exposition, the more impressive its confident strangeness comes to seem.
A big reason that we let Preacher get away with so much—and make no mistake, this is a world where the local brothel allows its clients to chase hookers through the woods with paintball guns and Quinncannon cradles a baby made out of ground chuck in the finale—are Custer's winning companions, the badass fugitive Tulip (Ruth Negga), with whom the Reverend Jesse used to rob banks, and smarmy Irish vampire Cassidy (Joe Gilgun). The pilot introduces Tulip fighting off an assailant in a car as it sails through a cornfield, after which she improvises a bazooka out of coffee cans and corn whiskey. We first meet Cassidy on an airplane, relaying an anecdote that begins, "You've had to have the kind of night that lands you in the hospital tryin' to figure out what the Spanish word is for 'ass hamster,' for goodness' sake." Negga and Gilgun's performances carry the show, which gets by on their mutual love/hate chemistry with Jesse, while it takes the season to find its voice.
Preacher is, of course, based on a seminal 1990s comic series with a wide following, and the show sometimes feels like the first adaptation of a comic book to be aimed not at newcomers, but directly at the existing fan base. Its deviations in terms of content and writing are intriguing in terms of adaptation, as it manages to capture the wicked spirit of the books while making departures that expand on the canon.
The comic, more than the show at this point, was a deconstruction of Southern masculinity, as conceived by the Northern Ireland-born writer Garth Ennis; the television show hits a little closer to home, making Jesse less of a John Wayne epitome and more of a John Wayne nerd. One thing that remains true is that neither the comic nor the show are shy about controversy: Preacher's season finale featured Jesse resolving a bet with Quinncannon about the existence of God by dialing him up on Skype and coming to doubt his divinity after he catches him picking his nose. Future seasons will probably incorporate the comic's Gestapo-like missionary Herr Starr (absent here save for a cameo in the third episode) and an inbred halfwit descended from Jesus Christ, among other heresies. For now though, Preacher is a joyous, mean, frustrating, outlandish show, whose bad taste and irreverence, in the best exploitation tradition, use the vernacular of trash to get to the deep heart of the country.
Recent work by J. W. McCormack appears in Conjunctions, BOMB, and the New Republic. Read his other writing on VICE here.