16 years after the publication of Neil Gaiman‘s original novel and after three years of development at the hands of Bryan Fuller (Hannibal), Michael Green (Logan) and Starz, American Gods has finally arrived on television. And it’s spectacular. The only reason it’s not the television event of 2017 is because Legion has already arrived and was similarly refreshing in its refusal to play by the standard rules. With the age of “peak TV” still going strong, American Gods is carving out its own alcove: it’s weird and funny and twisted and unapologetic. It’s the kind of show that would have been a cult item a decade ago. Now, it feels poised to be the next big thing.
I previously wrote about the pilot episode, titled “The Bone Orchard,” so this week’s review will focus on a few elements that feel like they need extra consideration. We’ll be covering American Gods on a weekly basis – this is a show that demands your full and undivided loyalty after the first episode.
American Gods really does launch itself out of the gate with its opening credits, which are haunting and beautiful and totally unskippable. The titles feel like the series in a nutshell: ancient symbols of power and faith, rendered in neon and plastic. Cheaper, mass produced, handled without care or simply handled too much. And mingling with those older symbols are unnerving symbols of Americana. An astronaut takes Jesus Christ’s place on the cross while “Vegas Vic” stands alongside the likes of Buddha. It’s surreal, it’s garish, it’s…well, imagery that feels like it was torn straight from the dark heart of America itself. And then the camera pulls back, revealing that all of these symbols, some ancient and some modern, form a makeshift totem pole. Meanwhile, that discordant theme music rattles your bones, existing somewhere between a religious chant and a rave.
In its opening moments, American Gods is blasphemous and colorful, disorienting and pleasing to the eye. Like the best opening credits sequences, it sets the tone for everything you’re about to see…mainly by completely throwing you for a loop. What is this show? What the hell is this?
So let’s go ahead and address that question. What the hell is American Gods, besides an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s celebrated fantasy novel from executive producers Bryan Fuller and Michael Green? While poking around Starz’s press releases will give even a novice a sketch of the bigger picture, “The Bone Orchard” is deliberately, slyly obtuse in its presentation. It presents a buffet of mysteries and questions, but it won’t let you approach quite yet. There’s a confidence here – if you like what you see, come back next week and maybe you can eat something. It sure does look good, right?
That’s not to say American Gods is boring or even unapproachable. The first episode, for all of its quirks and narrative digressions, is a thoroughly engrossing hour of a television, one that feels as comfortable lingering on the gallows humor of a lousy funeral and a violent encounter with a god-like figure who seems to live inside a VR headset. Every scene deepens the mystery of what’s going on here, but every scene if also funny and sad and wickedly entertaining. I’m reminded of how Game of Thrones viewers acknowledge how each season takes about four episodes to move the pieces into place so things can get really good – American Gods, which will certainly share plenty of overlap with fans of Westeros, ensures that the cranking of the narrative gears and the maneuvering of the pawns is a joy to behold. Every performance is on-point and every line of dialogue sings. We don’t know the rules of this world yet, but yeah, we’re certainly ready to learn them alongside these characters.
So what the hell is American Gods? If you want the quick answer, read the back of the book’s cover. Or read our extensive primer. Or, if you’d rather just luxuriate in the show’s magnificently gonzo and sometimes giddily grotesque tone, that’s looking like a perfectly acceptable option.
“The Bone Orchard” leans heavily on its two leads and, at first glance, they seem to be powerful enough pillars to carry the entire show. As ex-convict Shadow Moon, Ricky Whittle is the kind of soft-spoken, no-nonsense hero you want to see slowly lowered into a bizarre fantasy world. While the series allows him to be a genuine physical presence, Whittle’s surprisingly gentle demeanor and his willingness to wear his emotions and intelligence on his sleeve transform Shadow into a unique hero: a tough guy bruiser who won’t snitch (even to supernatural beings who live in virtual worlds) who is also sweet and smart and believable as a perfectly ordinary fellow who can be as surprised as anyone that he’s surrounded by gods and monsters.
This makes him the perfect foil for Ian McShane‘s Mr. Wednesday, the charming con man who hires Shadow following the death of his wife and proceeds to drop him into a big and totally unexplained mess. The news that McShane is great in this role isn’t really news at all (he’s Ian McShane!), so the real joy here is watching the chemistry between him and Ricky Whittle, two mismatched men from very different worlds who seemingly gel because they shouldn’t gel at all. American Gods is full of surreal imagery and graphic violence and even a scene where an ancient goddess devours a man with her vagina, but those scenes are the bait – these two really lure you in. It’s the dynamic between Wednesday and Moon that seals the pact and promises that yes, there is an actual television show here.
But yes, there is a scene where an ancient goddess devours a man with her vagina and it is spectacular. In an episode filled with eye-popping insanity, the introduction of Yetide Badaki’s Bilquis feels like the kind of thing people are going to be talking about around water coolers this morning. It’s a three-minute horror movie, a darkly hilarious cautionary tale for any middle-aged man looking to get lucky on the first date. The frankness of the scene, and director David Slade‘s unwillingness to turn his camera away, feels like a dropped gauntlet. American Gods isn’t going to mess around and it certainly isn’t going to avoid the fact that the tales of older gods and deities from around the world are gloriously fucked up. Nothing is off limits. World culture is a smorgasbord of amazing stories, some chilling and some charming and some just plain bizarre. So why not embrace it?
Beyond that sequence, “The Bone Orchard” is a visual treasure. The opening prologue, exploring the first vikings to land in North America (and how they introduced Odin to the shores) is gruesome and hilarious, a Looney Tunes cartoon with gore and brain matter. It’s presented as a tall tale rather than reality, with each act of violence rendered as an exaggeration. In a brilliant touch, a severed limb flies beyond the aspect ratio – this is a story that is literally too big for the screen.
It all comes to head with the introduction of Bruce Langley‘s Technical Boy, a mysterious figure who lives inside a virtual limo, dresses like a Silicon Valley douchebag, and vapes like there’s no tomorrow. He also employs faceless henchmen who look like they wandered out of A Clockwork Orange and, every so often, reveals his true form: a unsettling visage that looks like digital claymation, like something that simultaneously can and cannot be touched.
When the credits roll on “The Bone Orchard,” Shadow Moon finds himself barely alive, saved by an unseen force that violently cleaves his enemies into pieces. His expression says it all: “What did I just get myself into?” The audience may be thinking the same thing. But like Shadow himself, who is going to be drawn back to Mr. Wednesday (there would be no series otherwise), this show has us in its grasp. It’s not a comfortable grasp, but it’s a unique one. A fresh one. A weird one. It’s safe to say that I’ve never seen a TV show quite like American Gods and the fact that I can’t even try to predict what will happen next week fills my stomach with dread and anticipation.
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