A Crash Course in 'American Gods,' Starz's Epic New Fantasy

Everything you need to know about the much-anticipated adaptation of Neil Gaiman's acclaimed novel.
Courtesy of Starz

Fantasy fans, your prayers have been answered: Starz is bringing Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed novel American Gods to life with an ambitious new series debuting next year. And it only gets more intriguing when you learn who’s involved, from a cult-favorite showrunner to a cast that’s, well, heavenly.

But what if you don’t know the first thing about American Gods? Then consider this your Sunday school of sorts: a quick guide to everything you need to know about the Starz series, so you can get as excited about it as everybody else is. Let’s go ahead and answer some of your burning questions:

So this was a book?

Yes, written by legendary fantasy novelist Neil Gaiman in 2001. It imagines a world where all the gods we’ve ever prayed to aren’t in the heavens above, but down here on Earth with us. Gods centers on Shadow Moon, a thief fresh out of prison who starts working as a bodyguard for a mysterious con artist known as Mr. Wednesday — who’s actually the Norse god Odin. With Shadow in tow, Wednesday travels across America recruiting his fellow old gods to help him wage war against the “new gods” of society like technology, money and media, who are trying to wrest power away from the old gods. And yeah, it gets a little violent.

Why did it take 15 years to get made?

Well, it's not for lack of trying. HBO began developing Gods into a series back in 2011, but abandoned the project because they could never quite nail the storytelling. (Plus, they have that other big-budget fantasy show that's doing all right for them these days.) Starz swooped in and announced their own take on American Gods in 2014. And Gaiman felt Starz was the right network to tackle the project: "They are the same kind of fanatics that American Gods has attracted from the start."

But there’s only one book, right? How can this be an ongoing series, then?

Good question! Yes, Gaiman only wrote Gods as a single novel. But he expanded it with an additional 12,000 words for a 10th anniversary reissue, and is reportedly working on a full-length sequel. He also published a pair of short stories featuring Shadow Moon, which can serve as fodder for the series. But essentially, Gaiman has given Starz the green light to go beyond what’s in the book, Game of Thrones-style. And Gaiman is also serving as an executive producer, so he’s heavily involved in the series, and may eventually pen an episode himself.

So who is writing this series? You mentioned something about a “cult-favorite showrunner” ...

Does Bryan Fuller qualify? Fuller has earned rapturous praise from critics and fans for his boldly eccentric TV series, from Pushing Daisies to Wonderfalls to the recent Hannibal. His shows lean toward the supernatural and the visually sumptuous, so he’s the perfect person to bring American Gods to the small screen. (Fuller and Heroes writer Michael Green co-wrote the Gods pilot, and will serve as co-showrunners.) “Neil created this wonderfully stuffed toy box filled with all sorts of cultural points of view on how America operates as a system,” Fuller said. “It’s really much more of an immigration story than it is a god story.”

Oooh, Hannibal was great! Is Fuller bringing back any of that cast for Gods?

As a matter of fact, yes! Fuller loves bringing back his favorite actors in all of his projects, and American Gods is no exception. Gillian Anderson, who played Hannibal’s therapist Bedelia, will play Media, the new god of television. Plus, a pair of memorable Hannibal killers will pop up as old gods: Jonathan Tucker as Low-Key Lyesmith, aka the mischievous Loki; and Demore Barnes as Mr. Ibis, who’s really Thoth, the Egyptian god of knowledge. If that weren’t enough, frequent Hannibal director David Slade is also helming the American Gods pilot.

Who else is in the cast?

Glad you asked: Gods is stacked with familiar faces to TV fans, starting with Ian McShane (of Deadwood fame) as Mr. Wednesday. Pablo Schreiber (Orange Is the New Black) plays the drunken Irish brawler Mad Sweeney, Orlando Jones (Sleepy Hollow) plays African trickster god Mr. Nancy, and national treasure Cloris Leachman (Raising Hope) appears as Zorya Vechernyaya, one of the Zorya sisters of Slavic lore. Plus, The 100’s Ricky Whittle takes on the lead role of Shadow Moon.

Anything more we should know about Shadow Moon?

He does have an important backstory: He actually gets released from prison early when his wife, Laura, is killed in a car accident. Without giving anything away, Laura is played by Emily Browning (Sucker Punch) in the series … and her appearances might not be limited to just photos and flashbacks. (This is a show about gods, after all.)

What else can we expect to see?

Lots and lots of this great country of ours. American Gods is really a road-trip story, with Shadow and Wednesday traveling cross-country together to round up old gods for the battle to come. That means plenty of iconic U.S. landmarks along the way, including Wisconsin’s House on the Rock and Georgia’s Rock City. No word yet on whether the Starz series will definitely include these locations… but Gaiman has confirmed that the show will shoot on location in Wisconsin and Oklahoma. So draw your own conclusions. 

This all sounds great! So when can I see it?

That’s maybe the only bad news about all of this: American Gods is still shooting this summer, and won’t air on Starz until 2017. In fact, we haven’t even seen a trailer yet. But that just gives you plenty of time to read the book and get caught up in time for the premiere, right? Amen to that.

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