Created by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green
Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman
Premiers April 30, 2017 on Starz
First 4 episodes watched for review
Bryan Fuller, creator of Pushing Daisies and Hannibal, is fully unleashed with American Gods, a gorgeous, gory take on Neil Gaiman’s sprawling novel. No longer restrained by network censors and given seemingly free range to go crazy on Starz, Fuller and company conjure up one of the wildest shows you’ll ever see, brimming with geysers of blood and man-eating vaginas. You’d think all that excess would grow exhausting, but American Gods continually makes it fresh and exciting.
Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) is a few days shy of being released from prison when he’s presented with a good news/bad news situation. The good news: he’s going to be released even earlier than believed. The bad news: he’s being released extra-early because his wife Laura (Emily Browning) was killed in a car crash. On the flight back home to attend his wife’s funeral, Shadow hooks-up with the mysterious Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), who pulls Shadow into a not-entirely-clear job. Almost immediately, things start getting weird, even supernatural. And then Shadow’s dead wife shows up in his motel room.
American Gods is sprawling — it’s not just focused on Shadow, but an ever-expanding cast of characters who are introduced in little vignettes “Somewhere in America.” These characters are gods and goddesses, brought to America by immigrants of the past, trying to deal with the world of the present. There’s Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), the Goddess of Love who swallows up her lovers, literally. There’s Anansi, an African folktale character brought brilliantly to life by Orlando Jones in a stunning sequence set aboard a slave ship. There’s Media (Gillian Anderson), taking the form of TV characters. There’s even a fighting, boozing leprechaun, Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber). And then there’s the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, played with a sly grifter’s charm by McShane, slowly bringing all these characters together.
Fuller, working with directors David Slade, Guillermo Navarro and more, has found the perfect way to tap into Gaiman’s universe by giving it room to breathe. There have been very few adaptations of Gaiman’s work that have successfully captured the writer’s work, usually because they don’t take the time to truly devote themselves to the prose. In this TV format, American Gods has room to breathe and take its time. Under normal circumstances this might grow tiresome, and there is indeed a sense in American Gods’ first 4 episodes that the show is directionless. But the ever-changing narrative the show presents is so wondrous, so inventive, that you’ll likely find yourself in no hurry. You’ll want to spend as much time as possible in this world, destination be damned.
And American Gods is fully committed to creating that world. As the show jumps through eras and locations, from vikings arriving in early America to immigrants in New York tenements in the 1980s coming face to face with Ancient Egyptian deities, American Gods feels truly expansive and all-encompassing. The viewer truly gets the sense that there is a world of limitless possibilities here; we can feel the universe being knitted together, made real and both tangible and intangible. All the more remarkable is that so much of this happens in the first 4 episodes alone. Most shows would take multiple seasons to create as much world-building as this show does in a handful of episodes.
Through it all, the show is bursting with the same gorgeous, hypnotic style that made Fuller’s Hannibal so memorable. In fact, American Gods borrows several of Hannibal’s tricks, particularly moments of extreme, high resolution close-ups of blood in slow-motion as the soundtrack hums ominously. Blood-letting has rarely looked as beautiful as it does here. But American Gods is no case of style over substance — there’s a humanity at work here. An understanding of complicated human beings who can’t easily fit into simple classifications. There are tender moments as well, where characters meet with the infinite and unexplainable and find something revealing within.
Fuller’s shows tend to have the mixed blessing of attracting rabid, but relatively small, fan bases. He seems destined to only create cult curiosities; entertainment on the fringe that’s unable to sustain itself for very long in terms of ratings. Here’s hoping the powers-that-be at Starz are less discerning than those on standard network television, and that they continue to give Fuller leeway to do as he pleases, as long as he sees fit. The world is better off having a show as strange and beautiful as this. This is a vivid, technicolor fever dream, awash in mysticism and the occult, remarkably strange yet oddly accessible. In short, American Gods is something of a miracle, worthy of being worshipped.