Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Too Much TV: OUTCAST (2016-?) and PREACHER (2016 -?)

In James Blish's story Black Easter triumphant demons dismiss the Bible as "propaganda," noting that "each of the opposing sides in any war predicts victory." Many modern genre writers have taken that idea to heart by adopting many of the trappings of Biblical mythology while rejecting the fundamental premise of God's omnipotence and inevitable triumph. They feel as entitled to play with the Judeo-Christian mythos as anyone does toward Greek or Norse or Chinese mythology. Some people, it seems, prefer the idea of demons running amok, or unsupervised angels running amok, without the bothersome absolutes of God as Christians in particular (if not also Muslims) understand him. As a sort of atheist myself -- one, that is, who acknowledges the impossibility of disproving the existence of an omnipotent being, especially one who likes to test people -- I have no problem with that, though I'd also have no problem with someone addressing in fiction how people might respond to indisputable proof of an omnipotent, jealous and judgmental creator. Right now people seem more comfortable imagining that the Bible describes something real, though not with perfect accuracy or honesty. Two Summer 2016 TV shows based on comic books grapple with the idea that the supernatural is not quite how the Bible describes it, or as believers see it. For one, this anti-Revelation is cause for black humor. For the other, it inspires one destructive crisis of faith while leaving the rest of us questioning what the "hell" is going on.

Preacher (AMC) is based on Garth Ennis's comics series for Vertigo, DC Comics' line of creator-owned titles offering alternatives to superhero action. The involvement of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Sausage Party, but also The Green Hornet) should tip you off as to the overall tone of the show, but the real auteur of the show is probably writer/director Sam Catlin. There's a lot of weirdness for weirdness' sake in Annville TX, a methane-powered town (courtesy of the Quincannon Meat & Power Co.) where two rival sports mascots spend their whole lives in costume and former bank robber Jesse Custer (Dominic "Howard Stark" Cooper) preaches every Sunday in his father's old church. Jesse doesn't seem to have the calling, but three interesting things happen to him. His old girlfriend and partner in crime Tulip (Ruth Negga) returns in dramatic fashion, urging Jesse to join her vengeance quest for the man who betrayed them and drove off with their loot. A happy-go-lucky Irish vampire, Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun) literally falls out of the sky, having to leave a plane without a parachute when vampire hunters attack him. He'd still be a piece of abstract art in open country if a cow didn't happen by to give him nourishment. Most importantly, Jesse gets possessed by a dangerous entity -- others it possessed, all religious and quasi-religious figures, including Tom Cruise, exploded -- that confers upon him a voice that commands whoever hears it. With Cassidy as his helper or hanger-on and Tulip watching skeptically, Jesse believes he's been gifted by God to spread His word. He especially wants to convert the meanest man in town, Meat & Power proprietor Odin Quincannon (Jackie Earl Haley), an embittered degenerate who has espoused a Gospel of Meat since his family died in a horrific crash. Jesse (or "Preacher," as many call him) uses his new power to make some people change their evil ways, but his big goal is to make Odin "serve God." In fact, he wagers Odin that he can get him to serve God, or else he'll give up his church and the property it stands on. Jesse thinks he's won the bet, but he learns that what it means to "serve God" depends as much on who's listening as on who's talking.

Meanwhile, Jesse shouldn't really have his "gift." In the pilot we saw a Mutt-and-Jeff team of mystery men globetrotting to wherever the mysterious people explosions took place. When they reach Annville, we learn that they are angels (with a direct, primitive phone line to Heaven) tasked with reclaiming "Genesis," the entity possessing Jesse. The offspring of an angel and a demon, Genesis normally lives in an old economy-size coffee can and can be coaxed back inside if you sing "Wynken, Blynken and Nod" to it. Needless to say, these two incompetents -- luckily, they can rematerialize almost instantly after their terrestrial bodies are killed -- raise more questions than they can (or care to) answer. It turns out that Genesis doesn't want to leave Jesse, reinforcing his sense of mission even as Quincannon's unexpected defiance prods the Preacher to demand an irrefutable revelation from God Himself. Having stolen the angels' phone, Jesse promises his congregation that he'll talk to God in a way that everyone can see next Sunday. His triumph turns to existential disaster when it turns out that God Himself has disappeared to his angels know not where. It's almost anticlimactic after that when Annville is destroyed by a methane explosion, after Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy have set out on a quest to find God, more or less -- not knowing that they're being followed by the implacable, unstoppable Saint of Killers (Graham McTavish), a gunman doomed to relive the death of his family and his horrific vengeance upon an evil town until he's recruited by the angels to reclaim Genesis by killing its host....

Preacher goes against the grain of modern genre shows by virtually demanding indifference to the fates of most of its characters, having shoved most of its pieces off the board in its first-season finale. It's enough to invite indifference to the show's fate, despite strong ensemble acting and impressive craftsmanship throughout, unless you're committed to dark quirkiness as an end unto itself or find atrocity inherently hilarious. For this show the absence of God amid the evidence of angels, Hell, etc. makes everything a cosmic joke. Dominic Cooper does all he can with the role of Jesse Custer, but can't keep him from coming across as a self-pitying putz, while McTavish's Cassidy is occasionally amusing but ultimately a one-note stereotype of violent irreverence. Ruth Negga, who has a highly-touted role in the movie Loving this fall, enters the show like a super badass but rarely gets to live up to that entrance. Negga is a good enough actress to make you wish Tulip could convince Jesse to return to her world. However mundane it may be, it's probably a more compelling underworld than the snickering apocalypse Preacher promises.  I don't object to black comedy at all, but it had better be funnier than Preacher usually is if it really wants my respect.

It's too soon to pass judgment on the mythos of Outcast (Cinemax) because as yet we have but few clues as to what exactly is going on in Rome WV. Adapted from the newest comics series by Robert (The Walking Dead) Kirkman,  Outcast expands considerably on the first twelve issues of the comic, adding or enhancing supporting players and subplots. The main story remains focused on Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit), an isolated man with a record of domestic violence, now separated from his wife and daughter by a restraining order. Kyle's mother is a catatonic inmate of a mental institution. She and Kyle's wife both have been possessed by something; naturally enough, Kyle assumes it's the devil at first. He's reinforced in that belief by Rev. Anderson (Philip Glenister), the local exorcist. As Kyle's sister Megan (Wrenn Schmidt) tries to draw him back into the world, he finds that he has a special knack for dealing with the possessions Anderson ministers to. Kyle can hurt and even drive the demons out of people by touching them, inspiring awe and eventually envy in Anderson, especially once he suspects that his own exorcisms haven't worked as well as he'd assumed. Kyle has something Anderson's faith can't account for, something to do with the demons calling Kyle an "Outcast."

Kyle and Anderson discover an epidemic of possessions that the Rev. blames on Sidney (Brent Spiner), a newcomer in town who takes over the home of Kyle's neighbor who'd unexpectedly killed himself. Pale and black-clad, Sidney certainly looks the part of a satanic mastermind, and he plays the part when Anderson gets too nosy and confrontational, carving a pentagram into the Rev.'s chest as a warning against further interference in what we come to know as "the merge." It begins to be apparent that Kyle has power over the possessed while Anderson doesn't because they're not really possessed by the sort of demons Christianity tells us about. We learn that they come from someplace where they can't stay anymore, that they "land" in people randomly (Sidney had the bad luck of landing in a serial killer whose impulses he must struggle against), that the possessed can find their presence pleasurable once they get over a violently traumatic period of adjustment, and that the possesseds' loved ones can find the experience pleasurable too, one collaborating husband having found his wife more exciting once taken over. You could almost believe a modus vivendi is possible, except for the feeling that Sidney and his friends are going to do what they have to do whether we really like it or not. Whether Kyle is one of them in some way remains unclear, but it's significant that his daughter demonstrates similar power over the possessed in the season finale. In an odd parallel, both Outcast and Preacher ended their premier seasons with the protagonist leaving town -- you could almost imagine the two groups of characters meeting in some diner -- but the Outcast cliffhanger teases that Kyle might not be allowed to leave town.

Like Preacher, Outcast has a strong ensemble cast. Of this group, Philip Glenister steals the show as the tormented Rev. Anderson, a sincere servant of God who succumbs to the sin of pride in his determination to prove his exorcism methods as effective as Kyle's. Anderson's is the moral horror of a man fighting a holy war in the apparent absence of God. His tragedy is that he can only see what's happening in Bible terms, as a struggle with demons from Hell led by Sidney as The Devil Himself. Ironically, this puts him on a fatal collision course with an unpossessed punk who attaches himself to Sidney to spite the Rev., who happens to be dating his mom. At his best Anderson can still be helpful to Kyle, but at his worst you can believe he causes more damage, direct and collateral, than Sidney and his kind. Both Outcast and Preacher are noteworthy for the way ordinary citizens -- Reg E. Cathey's police chief is the standout in the supporting cast -- become willing to believe in outlandish things; Outcast is more noteworthy in this respect simply because Rome is a less outlandish place than Annville. Both shows steer admirably clear of "they won't believe me" tropes when the evidence of strangeness is too obvious to characters and viewers alike. Of the two shows, I obviously like Outcast better for the perhaps lame reason that it takes itself more seriously than Preacher does. For shows like these, that means Outcast more effectively and intriguingly plays out the implications of its fantasies, though again, Preacher could redeem itself if it were as funny as it thinks it is -- if it were Ash Vs. Evil Dead funny, for instance. It isn't a bad show at all, except that it won't pass the "who cares?" test for many people. In a highly competitive genre TV environment Outcast does get you to care, and it's the show I'm more certain to watch when it returns for another season.

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