“I believe,” Shadow breathes in the final episode of season one of the Starz series American Gods. Ricky Wittle, who plays Shadow, wears a beatific smile as he speaks; it’s supposed to be the emotional climax of the series. But the smile looks overdetermined and vapid, like the grin of a car salesman, not a Buddha. Shadow’s belief is vocal but unbelievable — especially after watching the recent season-two finale of the much more theologically cynical AMC show Preacher. American Gods touts the virtues of faith, but that faith is so vague, it ends up being meaningless. Preacher’s blasphemy, on the other hand, carries conviction. You don’t bother to hate God unless you really think he’s there.
From a brief description, American Gods and Preacher sound like similar shows. Both are road-trip buddy shows built around the concept “What if gods were real?” In American Gods (based on the 2001 Neil Gaiman novel) this means all gods. The show includes mythological figures from Scandinavia, Ireland, Central Europe, Egypt, West Africa, and who knows where else. In Preacher (based on the late-1990s comic book by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon), the frame is singularly Christian. Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) is mysteriously inhabited by a mystical entity called Genesis, which makes people obey his every command. In the series’ second season, Jesse, his girlfriend Tulip (Ruth Negga), and their Irish vampire hanger-on Cassidy (Joe Gilgun) set off in search of God so Jesse can use his power to force God to answer some tough questions.
The quest is necessary because God isn’t readily accessible; he’s gone missing, and no one on Earth or in heaven or hell is sure what happened to him. The metaphorical implications of “searching for God” are obvious, and the show is, to some degree, framed as a spiritual quest. As a child, Jesse saw his father killed in front of him, and he wants to be a good man, or he tells himself he does. He wanders from New Orleans jazz bar to New Orleans jazz bar (God likes jazz) asking if anyone’s seen God, and beating up people who mock him for asking if anyone’s seen God.
In American Gods, Shadow is searching for faith too. His wife dies in a car crash while giving oral sex to another man just days before Shadow is released from prison. Grief-stricken and adrift, Shadow is hired as a bodyguard by Wednesday (Ian McShane), a.k.a. the Norse god Odin. Traveling with Odin is a journey of miracles, which American Gods films in a lush, saturated, lingering, hyper-real style. Over the course of the season, Shadow summons snow, encounters his resurrected zombie-wife, and meets multiple versions of Jesus, all glowing with a nimbus of light around their heads.
At first, the spiritual effects distress Shadow, but eventually, he embraces them. The gods, Wednesday explains, need human belief. People create gods, not the other way around. People who want to live in a world of wonder only need to believe they live in a world of wonder. Those who have faith in leprechauns will be surrounded by colorful, cursing leprechauns, spreading their gold coins around. A positive attitude transforms the multiverse. It’s mythology as self-help.
In Preacher, by contrast, divinity doesn’t need human belief. Jesse insists he’s special because he’s been chosen by the Genesis entity, and maybe he is, but God doesn’t seem to care much. Encounters with the divine in American Gods are transcendent. In the case of the Queen of Sheba (Yetide Badaki), they’re even orgasmic. But in Preacher, divinity is an anticlimactic bad joke. Perhaps the season’s best episode involves an angel stuck on earth, who wants to die but can’t, because angels instantly reincarnate after they’re killed. He ends up working a nightclub act where he’s hideously dismembered each evening, then miraculously reappears in a flash of light, to the crowd’s delight and his own blank disappointment. There’s a cheerfully shocking Jesus sex scene in which the virginal son of God undertakes a pornographic marathon with a married woman. The upshot is a child, leading to a line of more and more inbred divine children. When Jesse kneels before the great-great-grandson of the savior, the man pees on him. He’s mentally an infant.
Using stigma against the intellectually disabled to mock Christianity (in both the original comic and the television show) isn’t a terrific story choice. The bizarre outfit God dons in the series perhaps works better as an offensive anti-religion gag. In either case, though, the blasphemy comes across as bitterly sincere; if the show were higher-profile, it’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t spark some Christian protests.
The antipathy to Christianity in the show is partly anger at the way religion leads people to do evil, in the same way suggested by The Handmaid’s Tale. Jesse’s certainty that he’s been chosen leads him to ignore his friends and his basic humanity. He refuses to use his Genesis power to help Cassidy’s ailing, aged son Dennis (Ronald Guttman), basically because he thinks healing the sick is beneath him. Ruth Negga, as Tulip, projects escalating exasperation and isolation through the series, as Jesse’s pointless obsession with God and with his own power steadily, tediously takes over his life. In American Gods, there are numerous pregnant silences as characters contemplate the ineffable. In Preacher, the silences between Tulip, Cassidy, and Jesse are mundane miscommunication; Jesse’s navel-gazing pursuit of the divine leaves him unable to talk to, or care about, his own friends. Even when the tough-as-nails Tulip is nearly killed, and suffers severe PTSD, Jesse remains focused on the literal state of his own soul. When Tulip finally dumps him, it’s easy to wonder what took her so long.
As season two plays out, Preacher shows the ugliness of Jesse’s religious obsessions. But it also quietly shares at least some of them. Jesse is angry because the world is arbitrary, cruel, and absurd. And Preacher the show also sees the world as arbitrary, cruel, and absurd. The show’s vision of hell is of a petty, malfunctioning bureaucracy, filled with jerks and bullies (including, unfortunately, Adolf Hitler). Jesse himself is an example of the universe’s ugly arbitrariness. In the comic, the character basically has his heart in the right place; in the TV show, though, Jesse is a self-righteous, trigger-tempered jerk, who goes on a rampage of violence and torture when he discovers Tulip has an ex. He’s been given great power, and he uses it to treat people like crap. What kind of divine plan is that?
In American Gods, there are lots of divine plans. Gobs of gods and other mystical beings manipulate, scheme, and twist fate about their fingers. This is supposed to be exciting — a celebration of the profligacy of human invention and imagination. But while American Gods has a geeky D&D pleasure in name-dropping entities out of different far-flung mythos, it lacks the urgency and commitment that comes with actual belief. Shadow says at the conclusion of the first season that he believes in “everything,” which is the same as saying he believes in nothing. But when Jesse looks into the black eyes of God, the emptiness has a disquieting solidity. For Shadow, believing in any story will do. For Jesse, though, it really matters whether this God in particular is real. For better or worse, that’s faith.