The golden age is over.
Works of art are no longer produced to quench a bored populace, who thirst for the type of content that frees them from their mundane lives, enhancing their outlook on life with fascinating stories, old and new, inspiring them to understand their lives and the world they live in.
Post-2016, works of art have degenerated into force-fed garbage that nobody wants, needs or trusts anymore. Deranged by political agenda or succumbing to incompetence, producers still want your money but aren’t willing or capable of delivering what the consumer wants.
These two symptoms have become a kind of cultural disease that seems to have blossomed in the last decade. It has infected everything, killing lots of film franchises along the way and making the movie-going experience a sour, unappealing, cynical enterprise. Who wants to consume something they haven’t ordered? Who wants to be insulted? Or attacked? Who chooses to be ripped off?
The screen adaptation of Niel Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ is one of those stories that’s come out at the wrong time and has suffered as a consequence. It had everything going for it. The source material had it all; an interesting premise, exploring the old gods, traditions and myths, wondering about the backwaters of America warring against the new, contemporary deities. The book celebrated the diverse cultural heritage of migrants and natives. It poked fun at the soulless modern world. It questioned faith and religion without demeaning them. Its characters were interesting, its backstories rich, and the plot meandering yet riveting, how can these elements not be transferred to the screen?
Having finished watching three seasons, I can say they did succeed. The casting can’t be faulted. The visuals and cinematography match the book as if the book was a novelisation of the series. The soundtrack faired even better. Even the title credits are still watchable after twenty episodes in.
What hamstrings this is the constant shoehorning of hamfisted and on-the-nose political and corporate propaganda, the type of garbage that the plot and consumers can do without.
The God of Propaganda
Media and entertainment have always been skewered by propaganda, especially in times of war. How many twentieth-century war movies were pumped out since World War 1 when politicians and generals learned how to weaponize the medium? From My Four Years in Germany (1918) to Battleship Potemkin (1926) to John Wayne’s The Green Berets (1968), propaganda films were geared to persuade an audience into supporting a war against a foreign ‘enemy’ nation. Even anti-war propaganda movies were made, such as Civilization (1916).
To go to war or not.
To fight a cause or not.
To be decent human beings or not to be.
To make a propaganda film or write a propaganda novel, or not to.
There is nothing bad or wrong with creating material that invokes a certain reaction from a consumer. Bad-intentioned players do it, and so do well-intentioned players. The consumer is left making the decision on how to interpret the emotional and fictionised factual information presented in the work. Audiences and readers want to be challenged morally and intellectually, but not always. Sometimes, they just want to be entertained. A skilled creative, or a skilled propagandist, would know how to strike this balance between propaganda and storytelling.
The keyword here is skilled.
The golden rule any skilled propagandist knows is not to attack or insult your audience because doing so divides and antagonises your audience against each other. Propaganda is a weapon first and foremost. It is effective in uniting a group of people against another group of people. Pointed in the wrong direction, it splits a group of people into factions. Vilification is the master tool, the mechanism that drives, points and fires this weapon. Amateurs and morons should not play with such things, and yet for the past decade, they insist that they do.
The God of Stereotypes, Bigotry and Intolerance.
Interpreting the novel to the screen wasn’t enough for the producers, instead, they endeavoured, with Niel Gaiman’s blessing mind you, to make sure that the viewer’s morality and prejudices were given a health check. So they decided to fight stereotypes, bigotry and intolerance with more stereotypes, bigotry and intolerance.
Season 1 plodded along fine, our protagonist set out on an adventure, just like in the novel. Its two characters, Shadow Moon and Mr Wedensday grow on you thanks to the sublime performances of Ricky Whittle and Ian McShane. Then, halfway through, the showrunners decide to attack conservative Christians, depicting them as mass murderers mowing down illegal immigrants at the Rio Grande, even gunning down Mexican Jesus in the process. There is a message in there somewhere, I suppose. Guns are bad. Religious folk are bad. Texans are bad.
Then to tie in with the anti-gun theme, the episode concludes with Shadow and Wednesday taking a detour from the novel to go and see Vulcan, who runs a factory making guns, in a town populated by Nazis. In the novel, Gaiman refrained from using Greek and Roman mythology as characters, so watching the show culturally appropriating Vulcan/Hephaestus and turning him into a fascist god was cringe upon cringe.
The success of the novel and the film adaptation hinges on the fact that it depicts these gods living in the real world. Nazi midwestern towns and a murderous Texan posse are not reality. But the producers seem to not care, politics supersedes art, or they don’t know how to get the same message across without being so hamfisted about it.
The God of Racism
An interesting debacle that showcases the hypocrisy of identity politics is the firing of Orlando Jones, who played the mesmerising Mr Nancy/Anansi, an angry African god who lashes out against the enslavement of his worshippers. Based on west African folklore, this trickster spider deity gave blistering speeches condemning the fate of black slaves, but the vitriol and anger make sense in context to the character. This is one pissed-off deity and it made for interesting viewing. Yet, the producers of the show decided to sideline the character, going as far as firing Jones for not toning down the spider god. They didn’t even pay the man for the writing work he did on his character plus several other characters.
This ended up in court.
Get it, the producers go out of their way to virtue signal about inclusiveness, shoehorn black actors in minor roles, they even have extras talking about how their grandmother became the first district attorney, but it comes to exploiting black talent, they exploit them and then dump them. This hypocrisy bleeds into the series and hinders every aspect of the artistry.
The God of Cultural Appropriation
Yes, have a pre-Islamic deity in the show. Throw in a devout Muslim into the mix. Sure, make them gay. But focusing the entire story arc on the relationship between the Jinn and the gay cab driver shows that the producers don’t give the slightest fuck about insulting the world’s 1.9 billion mostly conservative Muslims.
What makes this even more indigestible, is the fact that this story arc goes absolutely nowhere. The Salim character does nothing in the series, and contributes nothing to the story. Learns nothing. He simply hooks up with a Jinn, pines over him through three seasons, and then gets dumped by the Jinn.
The leprechaun, Mad Sweeney can get a strong and powerful backstory, so why can’t the Jinn get one? There’s enough lore around these supernatural beings to tell a thousand and one tales, so tell a story and get the whiny, dweeby cab driver involved in an interesting adventure somehow, give his life meaning, instead of giving a meaningless journey that ends in an orgy and him returning to pray to Allah.
The God of Sexual Diversity
Ta Yeh is a Chinese deity who manages love and sex between homosexual people, giving shelter to those persecuted. Known as The Rabbit God, this deity gets a mention towards the end of the series, for about 21 seconds. Instead, the writers delve into every clique their ignorance could muster. There’s no tale about family, kindness, or loyalty, it’s just glamourised sex and debauchery that seeks to rival parties thrown by Freddy Mercury, just to shoehorn in a plot device to provide Salim with his pointless orgy.
It is what it is.
When pushing agendas for the sake of pushing them, creatives tend to expose their incompetence and their own bigotries. Shows like this, which are based on good source material, are watchable and entertaining if you can ignore the tactless grandstanding. The elements of story, casting, cinematography and music are there.
There are timeless ways of pushing propaganda that work. The crux of the story must be the agenda, whatever it is. Weave the plot around it, bond the characters naturally to the issues or points of view the creatives want to take and get the message forward. What you don’t do is get an existing property that has nothing to do with the political objective and inject it with it. It’s obvious, super cringe and counterproductive to whatever cause is at stake.
The point of propaganda is to get everyone on the same page, not split them up into warring factions. So this is actually not propaganda at all. Wokeness is a strategically placed social cancer designed to tear culture apart, escalate the hate and loathing instead of easing it, and indulge the prejudices lingering in all humans to the point of mindless, irrational frenzy.
The good news is, the market will eventually correct this, as it always does.