American Gods certainly isn’t the first beloved book to find its adapted way onscreen; hell, it’s not even the first one this week (your friendly reminder that The Handmaid’s Tale may be the most important show of the year). But something about the dense mythology and storytelling baked into the novel seems to compel a discussion of this show from the perspective of both the book readers and the non-readers.
So let’s get the easy part of this review out of the way first — if you’re a fan of Neil Gaiman’s book American Gods, you should absolutely tune in to STARZ for its launch of the adaptation. The pilot presents a faithful, albeit slightly lighter in tone, introduction to Gaiman’s mythic world, complete with the “coming to America” tales and … uhm … Bilquis’ worship ceremony. Having only seen the pilot, it’s difficult to say how the adaptation will hold up, but showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green definitely seem to “get” the book. So tune in. We’re done here.
For the non-readers, this is a trickier question to answer. I watched the pilot with Dustin, who does not know a sniff about the books and when the pilot screening was over he simply said, “Well I don’t know what the hell I just watched, but I dug it.” If you come into the show knowing nothing of the book, a lot of it will feel out of place and folks are either going to love it or feel exceedingly frustrated. For example, the pilot opens with a vignette that seemingly has nothing to do with the rest of the show, the same way some felt about the opening to season two of The Leftovers. Except there are going to be a lot of these vignettes throughout the series and almost all of them will having nothing to do with the show in a literal sense. But what I suspect the show will eventually make clear is that these vignettes are all short stories about immigrants coming to America and bringing their gods with them. Because American Gods is about exactly that, what happens when old gods are brought to America by their people only to be left behind because they are forgotten or because people move on to worship new gods like Technology and Media.
Of course, the show is about a lot more than this. It is also about beliefs and religion and ritual in general, how people use these to cope and to abuse. And it’s about one of the great American tales, the road-trip. And it’s about sex, and blood, and con jobs. As for the “actual” plot, we quickly meet Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), an ex-con who isn’t sure what he’s going to do with his post jail life now that his beloved wife Laura (Emily Browning) has died (and yes, you should know who plays Laura because even though she may be dead, her character has a role to play). After a chance(?) encounter with the acerbically mysterious Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), however, Shadow has his general purpose, to travel with Wednesday as a sort of bodyguard/assistant. He quickly finds himself pulled into a world involving six-foot leprechauns, visions, and some really weird shit.
Having read the book, I understood all the beats the pilot was hitting, even though I understand it’s going to play around with the timeline and diverge on some things. But the non-book reader probably has to settle in a little and roll with the show until it starts explaining how this world works a bit more and what in the hell is going on. Which will take some time as this season only covers about the first third of the book. But the cast here is phenomenal, which will hopefully tide the confused viewers over a little. In addition the trio mentioned above — and for the record, and unsurprisingly, McShane is phenomenally delightful as Wednesday — just dig this: Crispin Glover, Pablo Schreiber, Jonathan Tucker, Cloris Leachman, Peter Stormare, Orlando Jones, Kristin Chenoweth, Corbin Bernsen, and Jeremy Davies.
Oh. And also Gillian Anderson who I am positively giddy with anticipation to see. For the book readers, there are generally two stand-out scenes — the Bilquist worshiping scene I mentioned earlier (which hits us in the pilot) and a scene involving Anderson’s Media which, I understand, hits it out of the park.
With one caveat, I adored this pilot, coming at it from someone who loves the book but has probably forgotten two-thirds of it. It’s impossible to say how a season, let alone a series, will play out after one episode, but I think book readers will be in for the ride. For non-book readers, it’s tougher. Because in addition to the struggles some may have waiting to understand what the hell is going on, there’s also the Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) aesthetic, which is in full display here. Clearly not everyone loves that aesthetic or Hannibal would have been the blockbuster show it deserved to be. Now on premium cable, Fuller has no handcuffs on him, and so there is artful sex and gore aplenty. It’s positively beautiful, but it’s also positively not for everyone.
My sole caveat to the show is the non-visual aesthetic Fuller seems to have brought over from Hannibal, that hauntingly discordant scoring. While it worked so well in his former show, I actually found it distracting here, except for some of the less-grounded scenes. I’m hoping the score settles in to the show a bit because it’s really my only criticism in a pilot that otherwise seems to be fully formed and knows exactly what it is.
One last note. Perhaps because it has Lionsgate money to spend now (the movie company acquired the channel last winter), this seems to be STARZ’ biggest financial attempt to break through. Frankly, this is a network that should be considered “in the game” more than it already is. From Outlander to the fantastic Survivor’s Remorse, the network has actually been putting out quite a bit of prestige TV that nobody knows about. They clearly hope to change that with American Gods and, unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to work. Which is to say, I don’t think this is going to be the kind of Game of Thrones zeitgeist show that will bring in a swarm of new subscribers. And that worries me because because this show can’t be cheap to produce and if it isn’t going to give STARZ the subscriber legs or critical/award appeal to warrant being kept around long enough to run its course, well, that means we may not get to see it to completion. But I’ll worry about that another day. For now, I just have to hope I’m wrong, and pray for one last victory by the old gods over the new gods of Ratings and Commercialism.
American Gods premiered at the 2017 South By Southwest Conference and starts airing on Starz on April 30, 2017.