Friday, June 15, 2007

Why HBO Needs Preacher

While I thoroughly enjoyed the first episode of John From Cincinnati, I think it’s also pretty clear that this show isn’t going to become HBO’s next big smash. The channel has a reputation as the home of quality shows, and I think it consistently delivers stuff that you just could not see on a broadcast network. Regardless of the premise, I’m willing to give any HBO show a chance because I’ve had such good experiences with them in the past. But, it’s no secret that they’re at something of a crossroads following the cancellation of The Sopranos. But, there is one show they have in development that could provide everything they’d need for another breakthrough hit, and that is Preacher.

When I first heard that HBO was developing a Preacher series, I was happy, but a bit confused as well. It’s one of those dream projects I’d thrown around in my head, but never actually expected to see come to fruition. A few days ago, I saw a video interview with Garth Ennis where he said the project was moving forward, it just needed HBO’s approval to go to pilot. Hearing that, I realized that Preacher is exactly the show that HBO needs to make, and they’d be fools not to put this show into action. They wouldn’t be doing it for the comics community, they’d be doing it for themselves.

The Sopranos was a huge hit for a number of reasons, but what separated it from virtually every other HBO series was that it’s simultaneously elitist and fully accessible. Thinking of the show’s audience, the hyper intelligent urban elite can co-exist with working class guys who idolize Tony and his crew. This was one of the central issues Chase had to deal with, that a section of his audience pretty much wanted to be Tony, while he thought of the audience as Doctor Melfi and her social circle. Chase may have had issues with the whack ‘em all segment of the viewing public, but it’s precisely that group of people that made the show a hit far beyond the elite that is HBO’s normal target audience. And don’t think they’re not all about the elite, they proudly boast the tagline “It’s not TV, It’s HBO.”

A lot of what made The Sopranos a success was its controversial elements. The violence had people talking, and ultimately, that’s what makes a show a success. HBO’s business model pretty much relies on a show becoming watercooler fodder. Networks offer people shows for free and still struggle to get viewers. HBO doesn’t get the sampling that networks have, their shows have to be must see. The Sopranos was a cultural phenomenon, I didn’t even like to go on the internet until I’d seen the latest episode that aired, it was what people talked about, and consequently, helped to build the HBO brand.

While I like most of the shows they have, I think HBO made a bunch of mistakes in its recent programming choices. A show like Big Love is good, but isn’t as far beyond network TV as something like The Sopranos or Six Feet Under. The polygamy stuff attracted some initial press, but it’s not the kind of show where you’re going to be aghast upon hearing what happened on the latest Big Love. Now, a show doesn’t need to be that kind of show to work. Six Feet Under usually wasn’t, but SFU was also just so good that it became must see by virtue of our attachment to the characters.

The thing that a lot of recent HBO shows are lacking is that character attachment. Carnivale, Rome and Big Love just don’t allow for the same kind of engagement as a Six Feet Under or The Sopranos. I think a big part of this is the fact that they’re set in worlds that aren’t familiar to us. The Sopranos had elements of this, but also had ordinary suburbia to anchor the mob stories. On TV, it’s harder to pull off a long term story in a world that isn’t our own. TV is all about engagement with the characters, so unless it’s a massive singular narrative like Babylon 5, it’s tough to engage with the goings on. I respect them for making shows that are so ambitious and different, but it also makes it tough to become hooked on them. The best TV shows are addictive, you don’t want to respect a show, you want to need a show, and I never really needed to see the next Carnivale or Big Love.

The Sopranos and Six Feet Under are both very sophisticated character dramas, a genre that TV can do better than any other. They both have overarching narrative arcs, but also enjoyable in each moment along the way. I fear that shows like John From Cincinnati and Carnivale fail because they rely too much on mystery instead of character substance. I like mysteries, but a lot of viewers don’t have the patience for anything but certain fact. And, mystery should exist as the hook to get us into the characters’ world, not the substance of the entire show.

So, what HBO needs is a show that would be controversial, provoke discussion, and be different from network TV, but at the same time provide us with compelling character arcs in a relatable setting. Preacher would do all this, be the exact kind of show that they need right now. Reading Preacher, I was hooked by the over the top violence and grotesquerie, but what kept me coming back was the story of Jesse and Tulip, as well as the development of their relationship with Cassidy. The series has a strong character hook that will make viewers need to see the next episode once they get started. There are very few works that are just as compulsively readable as Preacher. I remember sitting down and reading entire trades in one sitting, it hits that perfect addictive place. When I started watching Buffy, the closest thing I could compare it to was reading Preacher.

The other thing Preacher has is a lot of controversial material. There’s going to be a lot of articles asking whether this show goes too far, in both the level of its violence and its not exactly reverential take on religion. There’s going to protests, there’s going to be debate, and all that is good for ratings. People will know this show is debuting and that’s half the battle. Plus, you’ve got the entire comic series fanbase who will be likely to tune in and give the show heavy internet support. Plus, the violence and sex would be something a network show couldn’t do.

The one potential issue I see with the show is its appeal to both women and the liberal elite audience that makes up a lot of the channel’s audience. The beauty of The Sopranos was that it offered really strong female stories, and the female hook to capture the female audience. Tulip is a strong female protagonist, and her relationship with Jesse would surely inspire some fanfic, but the stereotypical female viewer would likely be put off by both the ridiculous amount of violence and the macho posturing in the series. That essentially conservative attitude would also be troubling for much of the audience. But, I think it’s better to push people than just give them something that gets no reaction.

So, I think HBO needs to get Preacher in production stat. It’s the kind of show that will have people talking, and the built in comic book appeal will give it an immediate boost. If this show is a huge success, it could lead to more Vertigo based TV shows. I’d love to see a Sandman series, and in particular, an Invisibles series, preferably with me as the show runner on that one. Hopefully Alan Ball’s True Blood won’t preclude HBO from greenlighting another show with vampire content.


Anonymous said...

Let me ask, at what point you started to "get" The Preacher. I'm somewhere around tenth issue, just after the introduction of Jesse's backstory, and my only reaction so far was "What the fuck?!". main characters are great, but i'm really sick of watching anal rapings and mutilated faces every two pages.

so, where does it actually transcendents into something better?


Patrick said...

I think the second and third TPBs, issue#10 to #27 or so, were the high point of the series. Yes, I think Ennis goes to the same grossout well a few too many times, but the core characters always ground that stuff in a more relatable place. If you didn't like the Jesse's grandma arc, I doubt you'll like what follows, considering that's pretty much universally considered the high point of the series. said...

For my part every person may read this.