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SUMMER ARTS PREVIEW

‘Preacher’ was too warped for TV, until now

Dominic Cooper as Jesse Custer  in AMC’s “Preacher.”
Dominic Cooper as Jesse Custer in AMC’s “Preacher.”(Lewis Jacobs/AMC)

Check out “Preacher,” AMC’s demented new mash-up of contemporary westerns, supernaturally charged ultraviolence, and gonzo small-town intrigue, and you might be reminded of one of those well-worn jokes about a guy walking into a bar. But in this case, it’s got a fanboy’s unique sensibility. Something like: A paranormally badass West Texas minister walks into a bar with a pistol-packing wild woman and a hard-living Irish vampire — and they proceed to chase the stiffs from broadcast standards and practices right out of Dodge.

No wonder it’s taken a couple of decades for Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) and friends to find their way to the screen. Their starting point: writer Garth Ennis’s cult-favorite “Preacher” comic. The book was a ’90s cornerstone of DC’s edgy Vertigo imprint with its saga of Jesse’s ticked-off quest to find God, literally, after being psychically inhabited by an angel and demon’s offspring. The TV series, which premieres May 22, bears the producing stamp of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, Rogen’s collaborator on “The Interview” and a planned Cinemax adaptation of Ennis’s “The Boys,” among others. But the duo had to be more minutely involved than you might guess to crack an adaptation that over the years had thwarted everyone from HBO development staffers to Kevin Smith and Sam Mendes.

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“I had the most brilliant, creative [casting] meeting with them,” affirms Cooper, a Brit familiar to comics fans from his appearances in the Marvel screen universe as Tony Stark’s father. Phoning during a break on the show’s Albuquerque set, he recalls, “These grown men were so excited about the most absurd ideas: ‘We’ll get to these episodes with heaven and hell, and there’ll be characters having sexual intercourse with meat, and —’ It felt like we’d been going around in a tumble dryer. We didn’t stop laughing.”

But they also realized that they would need to take a somewhat measured approach to all the insanity. “The tone and the world of the comics is so crazy, I just couldn’t get my head around it at first,” admits “Preacher” executive producer Sam Catlin, a “Breaking Bad” veteran (and Hamilton native) who helped Rogen and Goldberg develop the show. “We worried that if we came out of the gate with angels and hell, it would almost give you brain freeze. We wanted to have this grounded world where we could start filtering in the craziness of Garth’s comics.”

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And so, in what amounts to a quasi-prequel setup, the series’ first season takes a long, twisty look at Jesse’s hometown of Annville, exploring the scrubby outpost like it’s Twin Peaks, Texas. Our hero’s compadres are here, of course, although bloodsucking Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun, “This Is England”) is more instantly recognizable than Jesse’s girl, Tulip, who gets a live-wire reinterpretation from nifty color-blind casting pick Ruth Negga (“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”). But the show also introduces new characters like Jesse’s widowed, secretly besotted church coordinator (Lucy Griffiths). Just a bit of normalcy to balance those scenes with quietly skeevy Odin Quincannon (Jackie Earle Haley), the local livestock and utilities kingpin. Or with Jesse’s haplessly freakish parishioner Eugene Root (Ian Colletti), a suicide-by-handgun failure infamously known as Arseface in the comics. (“Oh, you’ve gotta have Arseface,” Catlin laughs. “It was just a question of how we would do the makeup.”)

Calling from his home in New York, Belfast product Ennis sounds thoroughly pleased to see his skewed creations being done in live-action, particularly when he’d all but given up on the possibility. “The comic comes from film and television,” says Ennis. “So when people were interested [in a feature adaptation] initially, I thought, hell, yes, it’s got a good chance. But it’s so dense with larger-than-life characters and bizarre situations, as more and more efforts foundered, [‘Preacher’ artist] Steve Dillon and I both became cynical.” Laughing, he adds, “We were happy enough to have people pay to option it and then take a couple of years to decide it was unfilmable.”

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You do wonder if Rogen and company’s determination that the comic’s violence and religious themes are translatable is an invitation for grief. Sure, AMC has considerable experience with comics-rooted depravity from “The Walking Dead.” But “Preacher” is in a transgressive class all its own, as viewers will see in the pilot, which shows the grisly potential of Jesse’s newfound divine power to control others with his words.

Still, the show’s cast and crew aren’t sweating any potential controversy. When they were kicking around ideas in pre-production, says Catlin, “it wasn’t like, ‘Well, we’re never going to do that.’ It was all about, ‘When do we do that — sooner, or later?’ There are so many great characters and worlds that we don’t even get to in the first season. It’s almost like ‘The Simpsons’ on magic mushrooms.”

Tom Russo can be reached at trusso2222@gmail.com.