American Gods is exactly what you would expect from a Bryan Fuller adaptation of a Neil Gaiman book. Unshackled on Starz, the television auteur behind Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies, and Hannibal, brings his full repertoire to bear to tell Gaiman’s story of the growing conflict between the washed-up gods of the past and the ascendant ones of the present. In today’s crowded TV landscape, standing out is key in the sea of shows and its a lesson American Gods takes to heart as it unspools many bizarre and in-your-face events in its introductory episodes. The show is experimental, dream-like, and perhaps a bit too inscrutably clever for its own good. Nonetheless, it is a great example of a simple story told exceptionally. Whether it is exceptionally well or exceptionally bad will depend on you.
Shadow Moon is the name of a prisoner played by Ricky Whittle, serving time for aggravated assault. On the eve of his release, he finds out his wife Laura (Emily Browning) was killed. On the flight to her funeral, he encounters Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), an enigmatic man who convinces him to work as his bodyguard on a road trip across America. Naturally, all manner of weirdness starts creeping into Moon’s life, such as a tall leprechaun named Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) and the all-powerful stoner Techincal Boy (Bruce Langely). See, Mr. Wednesday is an old god and he’s not too happy with what the new gods have been putting down. A reckoning is coming.
If I’m being honest, the show snuck up on me and my rule (OK, more like guideline) of reading the book before the adaptation did not hold sway here. I can’t speak to the book-to-show comparisons specifically, but as a fan of Gaiman and Fuller both, it’s easy and fun to spot where one’s contributions may appear. On a show this out-there, it’s rarely an either/or. American Gods manages to synthesize the aesthetics of both storytellers into a purposely-garish yet beautiful pastiche of Americana. It doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of what that means either, with repeated digressions on human vices and the nation’s history of racism.
Starz’s adaptation fits snugly in 2017, both culturally and among its Peak TV counterparts. Watching the first four episodes provided for critics (of the eight comprising the first season), I saw strains of American Horror Story and Legion but escalated in the realm of pay cable. It has the bloody campiness of the former along with the timey-wimey anachronism of the latter. That said, the show defies easy categorization thanks to its genre-smashing conventions, flitting between sci-fi and fantasy effortlessly. What it most resembles initially is a road trip movie, perhaps Little Miss Sunshine or even the recent Logan, with McShane playing Grandpa Tyler Durden to Whittle’s “Jack.”
This is not a show for the faint-hearted, in either the visual or the storytelling realm; at different points, an attempted lynching occurs and a woman (well, a god) swallows a man whole with her vagina during sex. The biggest touchstone I had for what I was watching was Fuller’s previous series, the critically-acclaimed NBC drama Hannibal, which took a Batman Begins-meets-Lewis Carroll approach the Hannibal Lecter mythology. Fuller has a talent for making his productions full-sensory experiences, composing shots so that they almost visually depict taste and smell. It’s gorgeous and, even though Hannibal eked out three seasons, was gone too soon. The show also got away with the farm by broadcast standards, as you can imagine on a show about a cannibal serial killer. Here on Starz, within minutes of the David Slade-directed premiere, geysers of blood open up, a ridiculous amount of arrows turn a man into a pincushion, and (I have to mention this again, though it happens later) a woman swallows a man with her vagina during sex.
The characters are inherently archetypal, given their basis in real world mythology and religion. Whittle does a fine job as the leading character. Like in other genre projects, the lead often has the shoulder the burden of ignorance in early episodes, asking expository question after expository question. Fortunately, both the writing, Whittle, and a plethora of “fucks” make the whole process fly by. McShane is always a joy to have on the big or small screen, and he chews through the dialogue with relish. Orlando Jones, Gillian Anderson, and Peter Stormare also had notable guest appearances in the first four episodes as various gods.
American Gods is the perfect example of a show balancing its satire with its own depiction of decadence. Some critics may indulge in the imitative fallacy with this show, but showing isn’t endorsing. The risks the show takes may not make everyone comfortable, but they are done with purpose. Many scenes, even long speeches, get backing music, giving the whole enterprise a pulsating rhythm, as if the show has a heartbeat itself. Like the traveling characters on the show, watching it is a trip, if you can find the show’s wavelength.
American Gods premieres Sunday April 30 at 9 p.m. on Starz.