Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Golden Age of TV: HBO Pulls the Plug on Preacher

It has been widely reported that HBO has decided not to proceed with their plan to adapt Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's long-running comics series Preacher into a television show. This is some of the worst news that people who are fans of excellence have received in a while, with one very minor silver lining. You can read the whole story over at Newsarama, but here are my thoughts:

When I said this is bad news for fans of excellence, I meant it. You see, there's been a great deal of excellence going on in comics for the past two decades, and a great deal of it has hit the silver screen. But there are a number of absolutely fantastic series that have not managed to make the big screen, for the simple reason of length. When Batman or Spider-Man is made into a movie, the creators have decades of material to choose from, but that material is not arranged into a coherent plot, and it's up to them to make a movie out of it. And smaller projects featuring great recent comics have been made - like 300, Wanted, or V for Vendetta - but these have one single plot that (with modification) can be turned fairly easily into a movie.

But lingering beyond moviedom are some legendary series that took years to make and have 50 or more issues. Comics like The Sandman (the grandaddy of them all), Ex Machina, Transmetropolitan, Lucifer, Y: The Last Man, Fables, 100 Bullets, Doom Patrol, and yes, Preacher wouldn't make sense as movies. These stories often take a decade to tell and occur over the course of many years; to attempt to condense this long-form storytelling into 110 minutes would require the worst form of synecdoche. Some of them perhaps could survive the Hellboy treatment, with one of their more important stories serving as an origin/launching point for future adventures. But most of them are less episodic than Hellboy, and that means there's only one option to tell the whole story: TV.

The problem is, the comics revolution brought with it violence and dirty words. Those things don't play that well on networks or even regular cable. And even if they did, we're talking serious storytelling, the kind that you wouldn't trust the people responsible for Friends or Malcolm in the Middle to tell. So for as long as I can remember (at least, since the Golden Age of Television began) fans have called for the very best long-running comics series to be made into shows by the people that brought Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire to life. Only on HBO can you get the mixture of elements that would make these comics work on the screen: commitment to long-form storytelling, excellent acting and production values, willingness to show violence, gore, and sexuality, and the cultural cachet to turn these long beloved comics into legitimate landmarks of American culture.

Preacher was supposed to be the test case for this project. It's a little older than most of the other series I mentioned, and although it's not my favorite, it's certainly one of the best. If HBO could take Preacher and make it into a viable television series, the sky was the limit. No longer would we have to dread the upcoming film versions of our favorite comics, certain that 8 years of storytelling would get ripped up and rewritten into a single nonsensical movie. Instead, we could just sit back and relax while stories that were serialized over years were adapted over years by the best creators on the small screen.

There are a few pieces of good news. First, the man behind the Preacher series was Mark Steven Johnson. He was writing and executive producing, and he previously wrote Jack Frost (the Keaton vehicle), Daredevil, and Ghost Rider. His Preacher might not have been what we wanted anyway...

More importantly, Johnson said that HBO kiboshed Preacher because it "was just too dark and too violent and too controversial." Now, on the one hand, that's pretty scary: HBO is backing out of a violent and controversial show? And this defeats my point that HBO is the only place these shows could live. But, on the plus side, Preacher is one of the most violent and controversial pieces of comics literature ever made. So just because Preacher was too dark doesn't mean that 100 Bullets would be.

Both of those caveats aside, this is some bad news. True, D.J. Caruso's plan to do Y: The Last Man as a trilogy might be even better than an HBO show. What 3 2-hour movies would lose in nuance (when compared to five 12-hour seasons), they might be able to make up in superior budget and style. But Preacher would have been a giant step forward for bringing long-running comics series to life, intact and unsullied. I don't know when the next chance will be, but I'm hoping it's soon.

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