Film and drama

Screen Themes: Dear White People vs American Gods

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It’s time for some small screen amusement as entertainment editor John Turnbull checks out the controversial Dear White People and the deeply weird American Gods.

American Gods

Created by Bryan Fuller & Michael Green (Amazon Prime Video)

Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, American Gods tells the story of Shadow Moon, an ex-convict drawn into a world of warring deities and hidden secrets. Approaching the end of a three year sentence, Shadow is released a few days early following the death of his wife, then is offered a job by the mysterious Mister Wednesday.

From this point, Shadow’s life gets progressively weirder, as he encounters individuals with fantastic powers and shadowy motivations, cheats death and accompanies Mister Wednesday as he rallies his troops to fight the ultimate battle between old and new gods.

Tackling grandiose themes, like belief, destiny and free will, American Gods introduces a pantheon of deities, both old and new: the pugnacious Mad Sweeney (a six foot tall leprechaun); Technical Boy, the god of computers; the fertility god, Bilquis; and spider god Anansi, played with scenery-chewing relish by Orlando Jones.

From a casting perspective, American Gods boasts an embarrassment of riches, from the always sublime Ian McShane as Mr Wednesday, Gillian Anderson as the god of media, Peter Stormare as Slavic god Czernobog and Crispin Glover as New God leader Mr World. It is somewhat unsurprising that, in this stacked cast, ostensible leading man Ricky Whittle looks a little lost — although, fortunately, this works for his character.

With only two episodes down, American Gods could go either way. While I have a passing familiarity with the source material (which I read a lifetime ago working in a comic book shop) I was completely baffled at more than one point; this is not a series for people who like things spelt out for them. It probably helps if you have a working knowledge of ancient religions and obscure gods but, either way, this seems like a series that you’ll need to watch more than once to really appreciate.

Dear White People

Created by Justin Simien (Netflix Australia)

Based on the 2014 film of the same name, Dear White People starts with an incident on an Ivy League college campus, with the continuing story told through the eyes of multiple observers. The incident in question is a blackface party at the majority-white school, sparking recriminations, righteous anger and frequent use of the word ‘woke’.

This Rashomon-like approach to storytelling works because each episode reveals new perspectives, with tiny details that seem insignificant in episode one becoming crucial by the end of the season. There is also a strong sense of "perception is reality", as the same events play out very differently through different characters eyes.

As a comedy/drama, it takes a few episodes for the former descriptive to kick in, but when it does it’s more than worth the wait. Somewhat similar to Arrested Development, in that a setup may take a few episodes to pay off, Dear White People is frequently laugh out loud funny, particularly from episode four or so.

While some media commentators have accused the series of "reverse racism" (which isn’t a thing, by the way, it’s just racism), that’s a simplistic interpretation — and nothing in this series is as simple as it seems. As the series progresses, all of the main characters evolve, revealing hidden depths along with the fact that they’re mostly terrible people.

The main character is Sam (Logan Browning), the radio DJ who hosts the titular show. Strident, passionate and frequently hypocritical, Sam is the leader of the Black Student Council, one of no less than four African-American political groups at a majority-Caucasian institution. Sam’s best friend is Coco (Antoinette Robertson), a girl who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks but now surrounds herself with Barbie-like sycophants. Then there is Sam’s Josh Groban lookalike boyfriend, Gabe, (John Patrick Amedori), and student leader and son of the dean Troy (Brandon P Bell), who spends most of his time making empty promises to special interest groups while trying to be elected student president. Probably the most sympathetic character is Lionel (DeRon Horton), a reporter for the school newspaper in the process of discovering his sexuality.

With an episode length of less than half-an-hour, it’s easy to run through the entire series of Dear White People in a few days. This probably isn’t a bad way to watch it, as the long pause between setup and payoff doesn’t really reward a weekly viewing schedule.

The Verdict

There is a distinctly American flavor to both American Gods and Dear White People, however don’t let that put you off. Both are well written, well acted and intellectually stimulating, which is more than you can say for 80% of the programs on commercial TV these days.

It’s worth pointing out that neither American Gods or Dear White People is suitable for children. American Gods is wildly violent and features literal buckets of blood being strewn about, while Dear White People features copious drug use and frequent nudity — just like my own university days (not really).  

American Gods: 8/10

Dear White People: 7/10

Enjoy what you've just read? John Turnbull's books are now available on Amazon and Kindle. Take a journey deep into the disturbed psyche behind columns including Screen Themes, Think For Yourself, New Music Through Old Ears and JT on NXT. There’s supernatural thriller, Damnation’s Flame; action/romance, Reaper; black comedy, City Boy; and travel guidebook, Bar Trek: Europe.

Damnation's Flame by John Turnbull is also available in the IA store HERE. (Free postage!)

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