Review: STARZ’s 'American Gods' Is Fascinating and Opaque, But Never Dull
I’m not usually a fan of ignorance as a general rule. But when it comes to watching a show without knowing anything about any source material upon which it’s based? Ignorance is bliss.
That’s what I’ve concluded after a few years of wrestling with shows based upon books, film, theatre, blog, or interpretative dance. (I don’t actually know of any show based on interpretative dance, but given the sheer number of shows in the era of Peak TV, odds are at least one is. My best bet? Blue Bloods.) Sure, you get to feel superior in the comments while newbies such as myself try tobfigure out what the hell is going on, but the only surprises can come from where the show does inevitably deviate from the source material. Even if that deviation turns out to be smart, you’re still aware of the deviation, which means you aren’t really watching a television show so much as tracking two different fictional realities in relation to one another.
So it’s with great delight that I can say that I have little sense of what the hell is going on in the early episodes of STARZ’s upcoming adaptation of American Gods (premiering April 30), and it doesn’t matter at all. It’s still a fascinating piece of small-screen storytelling that is often opaque but never dull. At times profound, at some times profane, at some times seemingly the porn version of that Comparative Religion class your college crush undoubtedly took, it’s a mishmash of disparate elements that probably wouldn’t work without the sure hands of Bryan Fuller and Michael Green at the helm.
Summing up the plot of the show would bore those who read the book and confuse those who haven’t. Suffice it to say, this show is often times more experiential than narrative in focus. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a story here — there’s a roadtrip at the heart of everything — but American Gods is less interested in linearity than in painting a mural. Given that David Slade, who directed the pilot and many other episodes of Fuller’s Hannibal, is behind the camera here as well, that painterly motif carries through into the shot composition that suffuses this show. Those who luxuriated in Hannibal’s slow-motion surrealism will feel at home here, even as the gaze pulls back from a plate of food to the entire goddamn cosmos.
The main storyline is constantly interrupted or precluded by seemingly one-off digressions throughout history. These are designed as conscious interludes that provide thematic depth rather than plot advancement. Some might find these distracting, especially if you want to know what’s happening in the main storyline. If you’re like me, and prefer tightly-knit episodes that have a shape of their own but also contribute to the season-long narrative, it might be a little jarring. But almost without fail, these interludes function as shorts unto themselves, commenting on the road trip without necessarily depicting anything directly related to it. The scope of this show is huge, and all the money that STARZ pumped into this program is onscreen to see.
This isn’t just a special-effects extravaganza, however. The characters that populate this world are entertaining even when not bathed in CGI glory. In particular, Ian McShane seems to be having the time of his life as Mr. Wednesday, an enigmatic figure who recruits Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle, whom many will remember from The 100) for a journey with a potentially apocalyptic ending. Along the way, the two meet up with various gods that travelled along with the immigrants who have travelled to America over the centuries to fight The New Gods, represented by 20th- and 21st-century passions such as television and the internet. (As someone writing about TV on an entertainment website, I cannot relate to this vision at all.)
If there’s a slight criticism to be leveled at the show in these early hours, it’s that it’s unclear why it’s so bad if these old-world gods, weakened as old beliefs are forgotten, are replaced by the new gods. To be sure, the representation of the internet is a straight-up dick, and I’m not advocating for the demise of Cloris Leachman (who plays one-third of the Auroras, Slavic Goddesses whom I had to Google just now because I was no one’s college crush). But what does this transformation mean for the humans? Shadow is by design a cipher in these early installments, and while Whittle shines in the few instances in which he’s asked to flash charisma, it’s unclear why this matters to anyone but the gods facing their own obsolesce.
There’s a show to be made about how the melting pot of America melts away the different cultures that makes this country so strong, and I wouldn’t be shocked for an instant if that’s the ultimate meaning behind this war. My grandmother was a hardcore believer in St. Anthony Of Padua, and there was absolutely no way to shake her faith in praying to him whenever she lost something. I always thought it was a little silly, but it also defined her as much as anything else. She believed in him, and she thought he believed in her. That symbiotic nature is at the heart of American Gods, which posits that deities are only as powerful as the beliefs people have in them. The diaspora of religious figures that Neil Gaiman pumped into his novel is streamlined and flattened by American consumerism: Everyone believes in the same thing now, the show says, and we’re worse off for it. (Sorry, St. Anthony: I just use the “Find My Phone” app. Yes, I’m part of the problem.)
The show can be playful with its depiction of these figures, but it’s never unserious about faith itself. It doesn’t suggest that people who believe in a higher power are naïve or misguided. It’s ultimately bullish on a pantheistic approach to existence, where pockets of belief are natured alongside one another rather than in conflict with one another. The various asides that the show indulges provides the context for the journey Wednesday and Moon take. They are riding on the highways of America, winding through its history as much as its roads. There’s a continuity at play here, and it’s not just one person’s story: It belongs to everyone who came here to make a better life for themselves. American Gods suggests that it’s high time we remember that our happiness doesn’t come at the cost of someone else’s pain.
At this point in history, it’s a lesson worth relearning.
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