Unlike Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and Coraline, the author’s magnus opus, American Gods, wasn’t an easy adaptation to crack. HBO had interest in bringing the bestselling work to television in 2011, but the series’ future held years of teasing before Gaiman ultimately announced it would no longer live on that premium network. By 2014, Freemantle Media acquired the rights, and a few months later it was back on the docket, this time at Starz.
Now, here we are, six years later we find American Gods somewhat changed. Sunday’s premiere still set up a story about Shadow Moon, an ex-convict who leaves prison with the news that his wife was killed in a car accident, and what happens when he meets a mysterious plane passenger. Part of the novel’s allure came from this protagonist; the readers were Shadow, a blue-collar guy on a cross-country odyssey, witnessing impossible encounters with gods from classical mythology (Anubis, Thoth, Czernobog, etc) and questioning his sanity as our notions of reality are shattered.
The nature of television isn’t as accommodating to this approach. How can Starz lure in an audience with something as cryptic as the book’s original logline? The ensuing marketing campaign ended up pitching viewers on what readers only discovered later: a pantheon of Old Gods fighting the New Gods (media, technology, celebrity, etc.) for their place in the world, colored by notable names, like Ian McShane, Kristen Chenoweth, Orlando Jones, Cloris Leachman, and Crispin Glover.
The allure now comes from Bryan Fuller and Michael Green. With the blessing of Gaiman, the showrunners are embracing the core themes of the source material without shying away from its provocative elements. The result is a Hunter S. Thompson-esque, Fear and Loathing in the U.S. odyssey in search of the American Dream. McShane even has a straw hat perfect for Johnny Depp’s Vegas romp.
In one scene, Bilquis, an ancient goddess of love and sex played by Yetide Badaki, sets the tone for the entire season as she quite literally swallows a man whole inside of her vagina. It’s an enthralling, brow-raising, macabre moment tinged with a tragic realization. Once accustomed to a royal, deified status, Bilquis seeks out the worship she desperately craves through the only profession she can muster as a black immigrant goddess living in America: prostitution.
Much has already been said and written about the political takeaways from this material, but it’s impossible to shy away with the reign of President Trump looming so closely over American Gods like the brewing storm Mr. Wednesday (McShane) keeps talking about. The premiere begins with a story of how Vikings first set foot on the shores of the New World, which could be paralleled to how arriving immigrants are so promptly shunned and attacked by those already living on the land. Pablo Schreiber’s blissfully chaotic Mad Sweeney is another of the disenfranchised. Shadow jokes how he’s too big to be a leprechaun, but that, as Sweeney says, is a stereotype.
Then there’s the casting of Ricky Whittle as Shadow, which further changes the conversation. The character’s race isn’t explicitly described in the book, but here he’s a black man in prison trying to continue his old life but can’t. (For those who’ve read the book, this alone adds a new shade to the finale revelations, which we’ll surely dive into at a later time.)
The episode then builds to the final, cringingly poignant minutes. After meeting the mysterious Mr. Wednesday on a plane and agreeing to be his bodyguard as he recruits Old Gods to join his cause, Shadow heads home to Eagle Point for his wife’s funeral. Walking back to the hotel, he’s accosted by Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), the New God of the Internet and technology, who tries to beat information about Wednesday’s plan out of him.
The encounter results in a lynching. “The Children” — acolytes Tech Boy can digitize into the physical space — become the faceless white mob beating a black man bloody and stringing him up to hang from a noose, though he’s eventually saved by a force unseen. And these are supposed to be the believers of a synthetic toad-vaping god from progressive America.
This echoes a vision Shadow dreams earlier involving a buffalo with flaming eyes (a being that will come into play again and again) trudging around a tree built upon a heap of bones. Who’s bones? The conclusion is yours to draw — and you’ll want to draw one because the content begs you to.
With only one episode in the bag, American Gods is already one of the most thought-provoking series on television without sacrificing entertainment. If you fell for NBC’s Hannibal, you’ll be drawn in by Fuller’s unique perspective and the semi-Shakespearian speak of the script. We don’t just watch someone open a lock, we see the gears turning beneath the wood of the door. We don’t just see Bilquis blow out a candle, we see the camera prolonging the pleasure by bathing in the slow, smooth smoke from the wick. We don’t just see a battle, we see a severed arm spinning through the air before its clutched steel soars through a man’s throat and showers the sand in blood and bone. It’s grotesquely comical to behold.
Like I said, it’s a different story.
Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent
– Gaiman is very particular about the music that’s playing in the background of his story. The book mentions Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” and Velvet Underground’s “Who Loves the Sun” as playing at Jack’s Crocodile Bar, but the show chose to use the third track, The Dixie Cups’ “Iko Iko.” Gaiman writes how Shadow recognizes the tune as an “old children’s song.”
– McShane flourishes as the charismatic con man Mr. Wednesday, but Schreiber and Jonathan Tucker should also be commended. The Orange Is the New Black star replaces Sean Harris, who had to bow out for personal reasons, and Schreiber looks like he’s having the time of his life playing the always battle-ready Mad Sweeney. I always wanted to see more of Tucker as the impish but sage Low Key Lyesmith, but he only filmed an appearance in that one episode due to scheduling conflicts with Kingdom.
– We should probably start thinking of American Gods as a companion to the original book. There’s so much material from this world left to explore, and the show is tackling more of it. Betty Gilpin is skillful as Audrey, though her attempt to have sex with Shadow on his wife’s grave wasn’t in the book.