American Gods Season 1 Review
With the rise of genre storytelling in both the film and television formats, it is surprising that more of Neil Gaiman’s work hasn’t made its way to the screen. The British fantasy writer is a darling of the fanperson/geek crowd, known for works like the The Sandman comic book series, Neverwhere, Coraline and others. He’s written for such television shows as Babylon 5 and Doctor Who — not to mention the BBC series based on Neverwhere — while writing a film of his own, the dazzling 2005 fantasy release MirrorMask.
And yet, while there have been adaptations of his work like the animated Coraline and 2007’s Stardust, Gaiman’s projects always seem to have a bumpy road to the big or small screen. Perhaps it is because his stories, while thematically deep and full of wonderful characters and dialogue, aren’t easily boxed in. It’s hard to make a film based on The Sandman because it isn’t precisely one thing, which Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with. A movie based on The Graveyard Book has been in the works for some time, but the tone is a hard one to grasp.
That’s the same problem that has long kept one of his best works, American Gods, from making the jump to live action. The multiple award-winning novel is on the “Best Of” lists of many a reader and critic alike, with several awards to its name. HBO had designs to bring it to the small screen but labored for years without getting a handle on the script. Instead it was Starz, a network that is making great strides in its original series work over the last few years, who managed to crack the story and is bringing it to viewers (premiering April 30th at 9PM ET/PT). With Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (Logan) serving as showrunners, Gaiman’s story gets a generally faithful, unrestrained and visual enthralling look at old gods, new gods, tradition and innovation in an American tale of immigrants, both supernatural and otherwise.
American Gods brings its viewers into the heart of America, centering itself on the character of Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle). A convict nearing the end of his stay behind bars, Shadow finds himself released a few days early due to the tragic death of his wife Laura (Emily Browning). Lost in the tragedy of her death — a fact made worse when certain secrets emerge regarding the nature of her demise — Shadow finds himself in the orbit of a mysterious con man named Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane).
Wednesday hires Shadow as a bodyguard on a cross-country trip where he encounters people like giant, fight-happy leprechaun Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) and Czernobog, an old, tired but dark and powerful man with a penchant for killing cattle. On the flip side are digital messiahs like the vaping techno-hipster Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) and the suave, pop culture facade of Media (Gillian Anderson). Before he realizes it, Shadow Moon is in the middle of a war between the Old Gods and the New in a hidden world where magic is real and belief is everything. Shadow struggles to accept this new reality, his place in it and who he can truly trust.
One of the biggest challenges in adapting Gaiman’s work has the idea of serving two masters, a hallmark difficulty in adapting properties with strong fandoms. There are many who will be watching the series who are deeply familiar with the source material, scouring scenes and waiting breathlessly to see how faithful the series is to the novel. (In the interests of full disclosure, I am one of those people.) On the flip side, one cannot play solely to those familiar with the book, where certain things may not translate as well on the big screen.
It is to the showrunners’ credit that they, in the four episodes available at the time of this review, hew closely to the novel without being beholden to it. Fuller and Green, who wrote all four episodes, do make changes here and there in terms of moving certain interludes around and tweaking characters. Each change is done in a way that makes the material work better on television. The New Gods get some upgrades; Technical Boy goes from internet troll to so-hip-it-hurts social media junkie, for example. Shadow Moon is less terse, allowing him to become a more active participant earlier and allowing his relationship with Wednesday to shine a bit more. Not only are they necessary changes, they make the introduction easier for those unfamiliar with the source without letting the story deviate much.
Fuller and Green are both storytellers who have become known for excelling when they are allowed to express their visions in an uncensored tone. Gods does just that, putting the same sort of visuals that gave Fuller’s Hannibal a reputation for horrific beauty on full display while tackling its themes head-on in the same way that Green brought to bear on Logan. The series dances nimbly between the razor lines of its tone, blending the lines between the macabre, sensuality, humorous wit and serious drama.
Rarely is only one of those in play at any time, making for a heady mix that works far more often than it doesn’t. It means that the series doesn’t ever feel the need to shy away from its content, even when it might be uncomfortable for some viewers. The Old Gods are creatures of powerful emotions and needs, and with David Slade (30 Days of Night, Hard Candy) at the helm of the first three episodes, those needs are invested with a sense of surrealism and wonder. That goes for everything from the blood-soaked prologue about the first Norsemen to arrive on America to the full-on — and remarkably equal-minded — sex scenes.
These moments, and many others, feel like they Fuller’s unadulterated touch on them — no surprise, as Slade worked on Hannibal with Fuller and directed several episodes of that series. The strong visual aesthetic blends well with the themes, most notably during the interludes when other characters like Yetide Badaki’s Bilquis, Orlando Jones’ Mr. Nancy and Mousa Kraish’ taxi driver come into play. These scenes don’t hold any immediate relevance to Shadow and Wednesday’s road trip, but they play into the same themes of the relationships between people and their religions, and the customs they bring with them to new shores. The represent some of the most interesting and thematically-rich — and are likely to be the most polarizing — aspects of the series.
Another big reason whyAmerican Gods succeeds as well as it does has to do with its cast, who know exactly how to play the material. Ricky Whittle has the most difficult job in the lead role of Shadow. Surrounded by larger-than-life characters like Sweeney, Wednesday and Czernobog, Shadow Moon is the eyes of the audience and is more mutely grounded as a result of his situation. Whittle handles both the physicality and the emotional heft incredibly well. He also has chemistry to spare with Ian McShane, who is a blast to watch every second he’s on the screen as Wednesday. McShane is pitch-perfect casting as the old con man who is more than he appears; he can roll Gaiman’s prose off his tongue and make it look easy. Emily Browning has an unenviable task in portraying Shadow’s wife, a character who can be hard to sympathize with at times, but she’s up to the challenge and gives her best performance to date. Peter Stormare, Cloris Leachman, Pablo Schreiber, Yetide Badaki and Bruce Langley all make strong impressions in their various roles, though perhaps none so strongly as Gillian Anderson’s Media who first appears as a pan-and-scan critiquing Lucille Ball on a shopping center television.
It’s important to note that American Gods isn’t a show for everyone. Its uncompromising vision means that there’s a lot more set-up than direct plot progression in the first couple of episodes; it isn’t until episode three that the story really starts to kick in. But there is plenty to enjoy along the way and Fuller and Green spend their time wisely in building the groundwork for what is still to come throughout the season. It’s quickly evident that they have a plan that extends much longer than a season or two for this show, and like any good road trip there is plenty of time to enjoy the scenery on the way to the destination. Based on what they’ve given us so far, it’s fair to say that while the sailing will be anything but smooth for Shadow and company, it’ll be incredibly thrilling to watch.