'American Gods': TV Review

Courtesy of Starz
Probably worth sticking with, even if you'll need the patience of a god.
4/30/2017

The world building takes time and can be confusing, but the end result could be a genre hit for Starz as it brings Neil Gaiman's acclaimed book to life.

All of the elements that might eventually transform American Gods, the acclaimed novel by Neil Gaiman, into the trippy, world-shifting series that Starz hopes it will be, are in place. You've got Gaiman acolytes (and successful TV creators) Bryan Fuller and Michael Green as writers, showrunners and executive producers along with director David Slade, who was eager to translate the book to the screen as far back as 2005. Add to this a star-studded and eclectic cast, and an existing fan base that, on some level, measures up to that of George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones and Diana Gabaldon's Outlander, a loyal audience in waiting.

The problem for American Gods in the early going, however, is that its creators' wild ambition is running a bit amok and interfering with its execution, leaving the tone of the series haphazard and the narrative direction something of a mystery — which could make it a tough sell to those who haven't read the book.

It's a daunting issue, but there are several factors that could mitigate it, including the notoriety of the book and the allegiance of its — and Gaiman's — fan base; the patience of Starz; the fact that series on subscription channels tend to have viewers who, having already paid for the content, are more forgiving of slower starts; and, perhaps most importantly, if and when it does hit its stride, American Gods could be one of the more entertaining and addictive series out there.

However, after four of the eight episodes that will make up the first season, American Gods is still floundering. In the early going, the most pressing distraction — more so that the buckets of blood and intense sexuality — is trying to understand what's going on and what the series is all about, beyond the fact that old gods and new gods are about to go to war. The series is both rooted in realism and rife with otherworldly activity. It's as visually appealing as it is mystifying, like a comic book come to stoned life.

In the Starz press notes, Gaiman says, confidently: "Will you be disappointed if you've read the book and now you're watching the TV series? Oh, God no. This is what you've been looking forward to. You will love this." Which is fine for book readers, but everybody else confusion reigns.

There are abstract concepts in American Gods that Fuller, Green and Slade seemingly know well and take great geeky joy in (by their own account), yet are not immediately evident to viewers. For example, Gaiman explains in the Starz press material: "American Gods is based on the idea that over the years, all of the people who have come to America have brought their gods with them. You have gods out on the fringes of American society. They are grifting, they are hooking, and they are pumping gas. These are the Old Gods. Now you have lots of shiny, bright New Gods. Gods of internet, telephone, media, finance. Things that Americans are giving their time and love and attention to. They are getting more power and there is going to be a showdown. War is coming."

Plus there's the theme of immigration that works well in the current environment even if it wasn't as timely when the book was written (and all involved seem to have taken note of the novel's emphasis on diversity while casting). But, again, not all of these big ideas are decipherable in the early going because there is major world building required, and there appears to be no easy way around it (some book readers have noted a similar issue with the source material). 

There series opens with some "coming to America" storytelling and voiceover narration that is both odd (tonally it seems kind of silly and off-kilter rather than filled with gravitas, and it's unclear if that was the intent) and violent (multiple swords through eyes, bodies cut in half, that sort of thing) as it traipses back through the past few hundred years of history before introducing Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), a man on the verge of his release from prison. One week to go. He talks with his wife, Laura (Emily Browning), on the phone, and everything seems set for his joyful return.

It's not.

She dies in a car crash and they let Shadow out a week early. This is where the first lack of connection appears in American Gods: The series focuses so intently on Shadow's randomly meeting the curious Mr. Wednesday (the wonderful Ian McShane), the first old god introduced, that Shadow isn't allowed to adequately or believably grieve for his wife and the destruction of their planned future. Though Whittle's Shadow character eventually takes shape, in the early going he's mostly a passive block who just serves the writers as they advance the plot. It doesn't feel believable — mostly because there's a race to reveal the unbelievable, which is a collection of gods in human form.

A there is quite a collection of gods — old and new — and they are presented in ways that will probably delight book readers but confuse newbies. They are dropped into the story randomly, often without hints as to their powers or their connection to the story, such as it is (which is basically Mr. Wednesday hiring Shadow to be his body guard and not ask a lot of questions about what's happening). The introduction of gods is sometimes intriguing — such as with Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), an ancient goddess of love who devours her sexual partners, male and female, through her vagina — and sometimes randomly comic and violent without much else to go on, as in the introduction of Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), a tall and angry leprechaun.

American Gods is eventually leading to this shadowy, ominously referenced war between the old and new gods but seems to be racing, at least in the first half of the first season, to introduce as many as possible even though many of those moments lack a cohesion to what comes both before and after their entrance.

They are gods, sure, but initially many are just caricatures of abstract tics and traits.

That is either going to be maddening to viewers or, given the right level of entertainment and oddness (which American Gods has in spades), a story worth waiting for. On some level, this was also an issue with AMC's Preacher, FX's Legion and BBC America's Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and many of the Marvel properties on Netflix.

Through four episodes, despite the unevenness of it all, American Gods seems worth continued exploration (though the fourth episode veered strangely into macabre comedy and furthered the confusion about direction). There's a mad romp going on here and enough star power (McShane, Gillian Anderson, Peter Stormare, Orlando Jones, Kristin Chenoweth, etc.) that betting on the future seems the keen play even though it's all based on faith and weirdness at this point.

Cast: Ricky Whittle, Ian McShane, Emily Browning, Pablo Schreiber, Crispin Glover, Yetide Badaki, Bruce Langley, Gillian Anderson, Kristin Chenoweth, Peter Stormare, Cloris Leachman, Orlando Jones
Showrunners: Bryan Fuller, Michael Green
Director: David Slade
Premieres: Sunday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Starz)

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