“American Gods”: We Can Do Better

I just watched the premiere of American Gods, and I wasn’t impressed. Because of the promo photos, I’d been under the impression the main characters were black, but the moment I saw Ian McShane I realized it was going to be another story about an old white guy out for revenge and power.

As for the old gods vs. new gods, I should have realized that Neil Gaiman would have made it about European pre-Christianity vs. American technology and media. This culture war, apparently relevant in the early aughts when the book was published, was outdated before I finished high school.

The show does try to inject some current relevance — both Shadow Moon and Bilquis are black, and there’s an awful lot of noose imagery. But these gestures are empty and exploitative. Mr. Wednesday is more Loki than Odin, bullying Shadow Moon into getting what he wants. As for Bilquis’ sex scene — let’s just say, the way it was framed and shot, I could tell the directors were white men, and it was painful to watch.

In real life, Mr. Wednesday and Technical Boy would be allies, an old Anglo-Saxon god of violence and a millennial Silicon Valley tech bro. Their real enemies would be gods of the people they oppressed in their creation of America — Afro-Caribbean gods, indigenous Mexican gods, First Nations gods.

That version of American Gods would never make it to a network like Starz. But if we’re going to talk about the personification of the cultural and historical forces of the US, we can’t just pit old world gods against the technology age as though colonialism and imperialism and everything that made the world as we know it never happened.

But Mr. Wednesday and Technical boy are safe for the small screen precisely because they aren’t relevant, because their drama, supposedly rooted in this country, doesn’t pull us in. Two powerful gods duking it out are really only interesting to Gaiman and friends, who see themselves in Mr. Wednesday.

It’s a sad example of white male mediocrity getting the big bucks, especially in fantasy, while series like Avatar get written off as cartoons or whitewashed. I’m a firm believer in the power of myth and magic realism and futuristic dystopia to craft transformative stories about our past and present, but this series doesn’t do that.

I wish I could recommend some better TV, but there really isn’t any. I’ve written before about the web series Brujos, and it’s just one example of the many amazing stories that don’t get past the gatekeepers of mainstream, corporate media. I’d love to get a long list of similar projects, so please send me recommendations!

And in the meantime, go read some Octavia Butler, Nnedi Okorafor, Zoraida Cordova, and Roshani Chokshi.