Warning: Potential Spoilers Below
Showtime’s American Gods is a leisurely stroll through a dream. It dazzles, delights, and confuses the viewer, but its story unfold at a mummy’s pace. Much of the series involves road trips and I suspect that was the point: the journey is much more fulfilling than the destination. Every episode is brimming with disturbing beauty and faerie story detours that are fantastical in every meaning of that word, but the primary story often feels like a skeleton to hang such fancies on. It could be said that the story doesn’t even really kick off until its first season finale, and that the entire season was essentially a prelude to what lies ahead. In that way, it’s easy to see why many would frustrated by the series. For me, it was very much a journey worth taking.
American Gods is based on the Neil Gaiman novel of the same title. It’s an incredibly strange book and I adore it for that reason. Showrunners Bryan Fuller (developer of Hannibal, creator of Pushing Up Daisies) and Michael Green (writer on Alien: Covenant, writer/producer Heroes) are certainly no strangers to bizarre material. What they have crafted is a work that is faithful to the spirit and strangeness of Gaiman’s novel, if not its story. That’s not to say that their series isn’t recognizable as American Gods, but it’s certainly no word-for-word retelling.
For those unfamiliar with the material, the central premise is that gods and mythological creatures exist because people believe in them and immigrants have brought with them their deities and sprites. As humanity’s faith in such beings wanes, New Gods have been born: figures who represent society’s obsession with modern forms media, transportation, technology, and other such concepts. At the center of this world of gods and monsters is Shadow Moon, a recently released convict who has lost everything that matters to him, including his wife. With nothing left, he accepts a job as the bodyguard of an enigmatic conman, known as Mr. Wednesday. In no time at all, Shadow finds himself involved in a conflict between the Old Gods and the New Gods.
The world of American Gods is not far removed from our own in many ways, and completely alien in others. It’s a realm that has everything ours has to offer, but where belief is powerful enough to give life to legends. Anything a person can think of can potentially exist within this world, which gives many opportunities for truly magical imagery. And the series takes full advantage of it. Some of it is gruesome, some of it is weird, and some of it is gorgeous. But all of it is fantastic. In fact, it’s some of the most spectacular imagery I’ve seen for a television show in some time. The cinematography is nothing short of breathtaking, and the visual effects are a magician’s feat.
Like the book, American Gods takes many detours from its main plot. Though it’s easy to see why this would annoy the heck out of some viewers, most of these detours are pretty darn groovy. There’s one episode that’s mostly dedicated to the tale of an 18th
On paper, the cast seems exceptional. In execution, it’s pure perfection. Ricky Whittle’s Shadow and Ian McShane’s Mr. Wednesday play off of each other in marvelous fashion. As far as I’m concerned, McShane is Mr. Wednesday. Gillian Anderson is delightful as Media, wearing the guise of a new pop culture icon in each of her appearances. (Any show that has Dana Scully doing a David Bowie impression is fine by me!! ;)) Orlando Jones is wildly charismatic as the trickster Mr. Nancy and Yetide Badaki’s Bilquis says a lot with very little dialogue. As always, Crispin Glover is sensational as the mysterious Mr. World.
Perhaps the most surprising and delightful aspect of the first season is the inclusion of a new subplot with leprechaun Mad Sweeney and walking corpse Laura Moon, played by Pablo Schreiber and Emily Browning respectively. Both characters have been expanded far beyond their book counterparts. With Sweeney given a longer lifespan and Laura given more personality and backstory than just a dead wife, the pair very nearly steal the entire show away from the main characters. Their insult-laden repartee and unusual chemistry are nothing short of brilliant. If the series has outdone Gaiman in any regard, it’s in the handling of Laura and Sweeney.
All in all, the first season of American Gods is one heck of road trip. If one doesn’t mind frequent stops and detours, the series is superb fantasy. Gaiman’s magnificent novel is done great justice, and even improved upon in some regards. It’s very episodic, but most of its diversions are strong in their own way. We’ll have to wait to see if the second season stays in this direction, but I wouldn’t be disappointed if it did. American Gods is truly divine.