'American Gods' Episode 3 Recap: Does new Starz drama sacrifice substance for style?

'American Gods' Episode 3 Recap: Does new Starz drama sacrifice substance for style?
Source: Starz
Source: Starz
opinion
Mic invites contributors and staff to offer commentary and context about news and timely issues.

In Mic's TV Club, senior arts writer Kevin O'Keeffe and arts writer Miles Surrey will watch an episode of a TV show with no regard to how familiar they are with it. After it airs, they dissect it in a conversation with another Mic staffer. This week's show: American Gods on Starz, with guest Anthony Smith.

Miles Surrey (MS): Welcome to American Gods, where deities are real and the deaths don't matter. We're now three episodes into one of Starz' most anticipated series — which has just been renewed for a second season — and it feels like episode three, "Head Full of Snow," is when the show finally finds its footing a bit after a messy start.

We're still going back and forth between Shadow's story and the "Coming to America" vignettes, but with both cases, it's some of the most promising stuff. I'm on the record saying the Djinn short story in New York is my favorite moment on the show, while Shadow and Mr. Wednesday robbing a bank is great because, well, Ian McShane.

Anthony, Kevin, I feel like we're on different ends of the American Gods spectrum. I've talked with Anthony about the series before, and while we've shared similar concerns with the messy early episodes, you're probably a little higher on it than I am. Kevin, I have a feeling you're going to hate this show, because we rarely agree on anything.

So, with that: How did you guys like episode three?

Kevin O'Keeffe (KO): If this is the show finding its footing, I'd hate to see it on less stable ground.

The Djinn and the salesman
Source: Starz

Anthony Smith (AS): I feel like the third episode of the series is when it stopped being "a bunch of weird-ass shit that looks absolutely stunning" and I started to get a sense of the big picture. That moment happened for me while I was watching the third "Coming to America" vignette with the taxi driver. I can't say enough good things about that little love story, but I can say one bad thing about it — which is that it suffers from what, for me, is the overwhelming problem with the TV show: It falls apart when you think about it.

I was deeply moved watching this struggling salesman fall in love with the Djinn. The sex scene was bracing even without how — how do I put this? — you don't usually see dick on television, and if you do you don't usually see that much of it. Even if you do see a lot of it, it's rarely that good. 

In the end, the salesman takes this orgasm of fire into him, then he wakes up the next morning. His man is nowhere to be found (so relatable), and then he has a job as a taxi driver, which was a lovely button for that story.

But then you think about it, and like: Was the Djinn's only power to give him a job as a taxi driver?

KO: Yeah, so I hated American Gods. Certainly, Bryan Fuller is nearly unparalleled among TV showrunners with his signature visual style, but you can watch old Hannibal and Pushing Daisies to get that. This, on the other hand, is a nonsensical mess, and no amount of visual flourishes can cover that up.

I don't mean to point out that the emperor has no clothes because clearly a lot of people are very into the emperor, but there's just nothing there. The taxi driver vignette was interesting, in that an intimate, explicit gay sex scene between two Muslim men is not something I can say I've seen on TV before. And yes, an orgasm of fire is certainly new! But new or different is not automatically good. As Anthony said, the sequence doesn't hold up to the slightest bit of scrutiny. What is lovely is also utter nonsense.

Ricky Whittle is doing his best as Shadow Moon, who can apparently make snow?
Source: Starz

AS: For a show so concerned with race, with the experience of brown people in America, it doesn't ever really move past this superficial, visual vocabulary. A Muslim immigrant in New York is either a vendor of tourist trinkets on the street or he is a taxi driver.

KO: A show can't just be feelings because then it might as well just be a stack of images that don't bother with any plot. That's not a TV show — that's a screen saver. There has to be something there, and it really frustrates me that the critical community is holding up something that crumbles at the closest examination as a pinnacle of the art form of TV.

AS: It feels a little self-congratulatory, right? "You didn't expect me to like this show, but I do." I don't want to ascribe motive to people who may genuinely like American Gods. I just don't understand how this show isn't more polarizing. Because I think, as someone who loves Neil Gaiman's writing, as someone who loves fantasy and as a gay, brown immigrant, I think I might be the target audience of this show.

MS: I agree — and I think we can even pull that back to the show's treatment of Bilquis and the lynching scene with Shadow in the premiere (which, again, there was barely any backlash to how tone-deaf that was). It feels like people are more ecstatic that American Gods is actually a TV show, which wasn't expected to happen after HBO let it stall a while back.

AS: Right? And I'm happy a show this weird has been picked up for a second season. But I can't help but think about Bryan Fuller's most recent work, Hannibal, and what an utter masterpiece that was. In the same way, this show is visually stunning, but so is somebody abruptly turning on a light in a room.

A good example of how visually stunning 'American Gods' can be
Source: Starz

KO: This show treats "form" as if it's a dirty word. Like, there's so much style, who could possibly care about substance? Me! I care!

Let's get granular: Breaking up the actual plot of the show with these vignettes that take forever to get through is not interesting on a purely structural level. It actually makes it a frustrating watch because the second you invest in one story, it's done, and you don't have to think about it again. It's like anthology storytelling mutated with the most indulgent cable drama.

MS: Tiptoeing around this without spoiling too much: Episode four, which focuses on Laura Moon, is the best of what I've seen so far. It reinforced my belief that Fuller can still steer the ship — remember how incoherent the first season of Hannibal was? Now we call it a masterpiece (and one that ended too soon). I'm not saying all these criticisms of American Gods aren't fair, but if the back-half of the first season can match the quality of episode four, I'd be happy.

KO: I guess my question is: Why did Fuller not just adapt the vignettes and make the series an anthology? They're clearly what he's more interested in. You can practically hear him sigh every time he has to go back to the main story, which is why we wind up with stuff like that dull-as-dirt bank robbery plot.

AS: Yes! It feels almost like a Busby Berkley joint, where the non-musical numbers and the avant-garde musical numbers have two different directors with two entirely different sensibilities.

It just feels like there are way too many cooks in the kitchen, and that there's a book to live up to. What's interesting is that with his adaptation of Hannibal, he did the opposite of fan service. He took something that nobody knew they wanted (the queer subtext of Hannibal and Will's relationship) and turned it into an entire series.

If the Anubis the god of death is at your door, well, that sucks
Source: Starz

MS: We've moved all over the place in this conversation, so we're living in the spirit of the show we're critiquing, but let me try and wrap this up. We've got four more episodes in American Gods' first season, and at least one more season after that. What can the show do to right the ship? Make it a bit more coherent? Just veer into the vignettes that are clearly much more powerful than the actual story? Just let Bryan Fuller embrace his Bryan Fuller-ness?

AS: For a show about storytelling, it hasn't told much of a story yet. We knew who Will and Hannibal were in the first episode of Hannibal. And that was stunning because they were unlike any other on-screen iterations of those characters.

I wish American Gods would slow down a bit and give us more stories like the one in episode four. Like the Djinn vignette we get in this episode. The show has no consistent internal logic. It's trying to do too much at once. It has nothing new or smart or fresh to say about race but it still wants to run its mouth about it. Basically, pare down and focus.

KO: In season two, I'd just give up on the plot and go for the vignettes. American Gods as The Twilight Zone. Let Fuller do what he wants with this source material. Right now, as Anthony said earlier, there are too many cooks in the kitchen, and it shows.

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