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The time for new Gods is nearly at hand.
Almost 16 years since its original publication as a novel, American Gods is primed to burst onto the scene with a brand new Starz TV series, premiering Sunday. Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, American Gods winds and weaves its way through literal and narrative back-roads and forgotten highways, telling the story about a mortal man trapped in a war between ancient and infant deities. It’s such a complicated story, in fact, that even the American Gods cast and crew have a difficult time distilling the plot into one neat summary. As executive producer and co-showrunner Michael Green puts it: “We’ve always known it’s not a book that pitches cleanly.”
With that said, here’s THR‘s attempt to clean things up. This is what you need to know about American Gods before the series premiere.
The story centers on Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), a somber man who is about to finish a years-long prison sentence. The only thing keeping him going is the promise of a reunion with his wife, Laura (Emily Browning), but so much for that: Days before his scheduled release, Shadow is let out of prison early, on account of his wife dying in an automobile accident. It sounds like a massive spoiler, but really, it’s a fundamental aspect of the premise — and besides, even stranger things surround Laura Moon than death.
During his long trip home for Laura’s funeral, Shadow encounters a mysterious stranger with a false eye and an even cagier grin: Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), a wily grifter and self-proclaimed con-man with more than a few tricks up his sleeve. He wants to recruit Shadow into his fold as a bodyguard, a necessary set of hands given the intense war that’s on the horizon.
Therein lies the heart of what American Gods is about: a conflict between Gods, new and old. In one corner, there are the new gods like Mr. World (Crispin Glover), Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) and Media (Gillian Anderson), all of whom have been dreamed into existence thanks to what modern Americans worship and adore: television, the internet and other corners of the digital realm.
In the other corner, there’s Mr. Wednesday, serving as the mouthpiece for the disenfranchised old gods who were first brought to America on the backs of immigrants and through the power of their belief — folks like Anansi (Orlando Jones), an African trickster god who first appears in the second episode with a memorable monologue about racism; Czernobog (Peter Stormare), a Slavic god who wields a massive hammer and wants nothing more than to use it on poor Shadow; and Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), the Queen of Sheba who gains power through love, sex and devotion — and exhibits that power in the premiere episode, in one of the most surreal scenes televised this year or any year, an iconic moment ripped right out of the book.
The Bilquis scene represents one of the many reasons why American Gods proved itself a challenging adaptation. Speaking with THR, executive producer and co-showrunner Bryan Fuller opened up about some of the early struggles facing the series, leading to the original 10-episode order being shaved down to eight episodes. What’s more, Fuller says the planned finale at the House on the Rock — the site of one of the most dazzling and important scenes in Gaiman’s book — had to be changed due to a re-evaluation of the season’s direction.
“We had our finale that required shooting in Wisconsin and getting to the House on the Rock, and that was a big chunk of change we needed to apply to go back and reshoot some things we weren’t happy with, to facilitate a better version of the show.”
While reading American Gods ahead of time will certainly clarify the experience of watching the TV series, it’s not a necessary step for enjoying Shadow Moon’s televised adventure. As it stands, season one looks like it won’t adapt more than the first 100 pages or so of the novel, with plenty of material left over for future seasons. What’s more, author Neil Gaiman plans on writing an American Gods sequel book (albeit not anytime soon), which only further supplies the already dense series with more material to mine.
With that said, with all the work that’s gone into lifting American Gods off of the page and onto the screen (including a failed attempt at HBO through Tom Hanks’ Playtone Productions), and with the book’s themes exploring immigration and civil rights more relevant now than ever before, Gaiman says he would trade it all for a healthier universe.
“Given the choice between the headlines saying, ‘Is American Gods the Most Political Show of 2017?’ and a quieter world in which one was less worried about the possibility that in six months’ time we might be waking up in a bombed-out wasteland and battling for food with the mutated cockroaches, I would take fewer headlines,” says Gaiman. With any luck, he can have it both ways.
American Gods premieres April 30 on Starz. Let us know your expectations of the series in the comments section below, and keep checking for more news and interviews.
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