This month we take a look at the new Starz show American Gods, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman.
Developed by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green
Living Dead Guy, J.A. Green Construction Corp, The Blank Corporation, Starz Originals, and Fremantle Media North America
First Season premiered April 2017
What happens when you stop believing? What happens to you, and what happens to whatever you believed in? These are the central questions explored in Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s eight-episode adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. In the world of the series, the Old Gods, brought to America by immigrants over thousands of years, are weak and desperate. They are in conflict with the New Gods of Media, Technology, and Globalization, but their biggest enemy is time. The old stories are forgotten and the old ways lost in memory. What is a god of swords and spears in a world of guns and bombs? What is a prayer in the time of Twitter? These questions, all circling around the nature of identity and belief, drives not only the fantastical plot of the gods and goddesses, but the drama of very human characters struggling to figure out who they are and what they believe in twenty-first-century America.
The series focuses on Shadow, played by Ricky Whittle. Shadow is a low-level grifter just finishing a three year prison term after a failed casino heist. He’s taciturn, contemplative, and utterly disconnected from the increasingly bewildering world around him. Whittle brings warmth and charm to the character, who in the novel could come off as a bit of a cipher. While some of the flashier performances of his costars have rightfully gotten plaudits, Whittle’s performance is quietly poignant, putting a finer point on the character’s emptiness and longing for meaning.
After being released from prison following the death of his wife in a car accident, Shadow encounters Mr. Wednesday, played by Ian McShane. Wednesday is a mysterious con artist who seems to take an immediate liking to Shadow, and as the life Shadow knew before his time in prison disintegrates, Wednesday introduces Shadow into a mysterious world of gods and magic. Crisscrossing the country together in an old black Cadillac, Wednesday seeks to gather together other Old Gods in order to ignite a war with the new ones, a war all the other gods are sure he will lose. As the series progresses, other narratives begin to spring up in their wake, diverging from and intertwining with the main story. A six-foot tall leprechaun seeks his lost lucky gold coin. A cab driver searches for a jinn after a one night stand. And Shadow’s wife is perhaps not quite as dead as she first seemed.
The most engaging element of the show is its performances. As mentioned before, Whittle is equal parts charming and poignant as Shadow. McShane’s Wednesday is creepily magnetic, making you feel like you could spend hours listening to him tell stories but also like you should take a shower afterwards. Peter Stormare as the Slavic God Czernobog and Pablo Schreiber as self-described leprechaun Mad Sweeney seem to have been lifted directly from the novel. Gillian Anderson is delightful channeling Lucille Ball, David Bowie, and Marilyn Monroe as Media, the most engaging of the New Gods. Emily Browning is especially good in an expanded role as Laura Moon. While Shadow remains at the center of the narrative, Laura is as close as we get to a second protagonist, and Browning’s sharp-tongued, don ‘t give a fuck performance is often a welcome break from the eternally put-upon Shadow.
Of special note is Orlando Jones as Mr. Nancy, which draws attention to the main differences between the original novel and the adaptation. The plot is largely faithful, with some expansion and updating, but thematically, the television series is sharper and darker. Jones as Nancy brings a bitterness and anger absent from the novel. While encouraging a group of soon-to-be slaves on their way to America to engage in a suicidal revolt, he explains “Angry is good. Angry gets shit done.” This is a Mr. Nancy who has witnessed firsthand how Black Lives Don ‘t Matter in America. And indeed, for a series that is not, per se, about race, race does comes up a lot in the narrative. There is a tendency in SFF to have non-white characters whose race never seems to matter to the narrative in any real way. Shadow, though, exists as a black man in America. There are places where he cannot move comfortably, where he is automatically an Other, a suspect. When he experiences an aborted hanging, the significance is not lost on him or the other characters in the show, regardless of how cosmic the reasons behind it might be.
More broadly, the American Gods series feels much more socially engaged than the novel. There is a certain quaintness to the America Gaiman wrote about in 2001, a place lacking in old world refinement but filled with newness and wonder and a genial oh-isn’t-it-strange-how-they-do-things-here charm. The America of the show, however, is not so gentle. This is the America of 9/11 and Trump and gun violence, an America where wide swaths of the country are hated and feared, where Muslims are made into monsters, and Mexican immigrants cast as criminals. While I found some of the shows attempts at mingling commentary and mythology a bit much (at one point the crosshair of a gun is made to echo the cross as Mexican Jesus is shot down with bullet wound stigmata), I appreciate the attempt by Fuller, Green, and Gaiman to engage America as it is rather than as an ideal.
I found the visual styling and direction of the show to be a mixed bag, very much hit or miss. The show is extremely stylized and ambitious, as with other shows produced by Bryan Fuller. A show about gods and magic practically requires real visual inventiveness, but too often I found the show to be indulgent, favoring shock and weirdness for the sake of weirdness over consistency. At its best, the show is a truly unique visual delight with some of the best cinematography I have seen on TV. At its worst, it veers into camp. This was particularly a problem for me in the early episodes, which seemed very much to be testing the boundaries of what the show could and should be. However, as the series progressed, I found that it seemed to get a better handle on its visual vocabulary and pacing, so hopefully the second season will be more consistent.
Speaking of pacing, my only real criticism of the series as an adaptation is in how the transition from book to screen slows things down. The eight episodes of the show only cover the first third of the novel. While this leaves ample time to really dig into the characters and expand the narrative, it also means that the plot sometimes feels like it is moving at a snail’s pace. For instance, the true identity of Mr. Wednesday is withheld until the last episode. Literally everyone watching will have figured it out before then, and watching eight episodes of Shadow asking and Wednesday not telling gets very frustrating, and their relationship stagnates as a result.
Overall, American Gods is a very good television series that lays the groundwork for a great television series. The series is not wanting for boldness or ambition, and the performances are a treat. The themes of identity and belief are very timely and relevant to our current cultural climate. Now that the kinks have been worked out and central conflict has taken shape, I look forward eagerly to the second season.
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