If you’ve read the American Gods book, you’d balk at the idea that Neil Gaiman’s fantastically inventive and richly textured novel could ever be turned into a television show that would really do it any justice.
The world of the silver screen seemed to agree, as the TV adaptation of the novel was bandied around from producer to producer, resting at HBO for a while before being abandoned, and finally coming to rest in its home of Starz. With Bryan Fuller as showrunner, alongside Michael Green, hopes were high for something special. Arguably, the debut season of American Gods does not disappoint.
American Gods starts with Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) being released from prison early after the untimely death of his wife, Laura Moon (Emily Browning). Soon after leaving prison, he is approached by the enigmatic Mister Wednesday (Ian McShane), offering him a strange job as his body guard. Wednesday is a conman who seems to know much more about Shadow’s life than he lets on.
The basic premise of American Gods is that gods are real, and they’re created and empowered by how many people believe in them. Faith, prayer and belief make them strong, and without these things, they begin to weaken and eventually disappear altogether. Wednesday wants to wage a war, the Old Gods against the New Gods - who are characterised by the likes of Media (Gillian Anderson), Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) and Mister World (Crispin Glover).
The show loosely follows the novel, hitting all the same plot points, while also expanding on the lives of secondary and tertiary characters, and also creating a few new ones along the way. American Gods captures the dreamlike, ethereal feel of the novel by essentially making each episode a bat shit bonkers thrill ride of music, gorgeously shot scenes, and buckets of gore, with a hefty dash of sex thrown in as well.
The result is something that feels unlike anything you’ve ever seen on the silver screen. The closest show I can think of for comparison is Fuller’s own Hannibal, and the inspirations of that show weigh heavy on much of American Gods.
All its artistic appeal wouldn’t matter a dime (or a lucky gold coin) if the story didn’t have the chops to back it all up, and American Gods remains strong throughout it’s short, eight episode run. Several of the episodes feel like mini movies that tie into the overarching plot, and every character is compelling. While initially you’re reluctant to move away from the scenery chomping glory of Mr Wednesday - with Ian McShane in perfect form, as always - you soon become invested in what’s going on with the rest of the characters, too.
The majority of the episodes start with a cold open, detailing how different gods first reached the fertile land of America, some of these become central characters, some of them fade away, but each serves as a thematically unique, mini episode before the main meat of the story.
That’s not to say that every weird twist on convention or quirk of the story works. While the episode focusing on Laura Moon, Essie MacGowan, and Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schrieber) was a fantastic, self-contained story in its own right, it felt out of place as the episode before the finale.
Even the ending of season one itself didn’t feel like an ending. It felt like it was building for something bigger to come next. If I hadn’t of known the season was only eight episodes long (or should that be short?) then I would have been wondering where the rest of it was.
Despite a few missteps, American Gods - and Starz - should be praised for the conventions that the show eschews in favour of pushing some boundaries. An explicit scene of gay sex is handled with tenderness and care, coming across as a celebration of love and sex between all genders and orientations. Bilquis’ explicit sex scenes are handled with a mix of titillation, grandeur, and religious fervour, giving the sense that there was no other way to introduce this character. It also makes it all the more heart breaking to later see her fall, and her strange relationship with the New Gods later in the season.
American Gods, the novel had a heady, heavy story full of subtext, nods to other literature and myths, and characters, scenes and plot turns that took time to digest. The television show doesn’t make it any easier on the viewer.
While Shadow Moon and Mr Wednesday offer a narrative thread to hold on to, very little is made explicit. The dialogue is cryptic, the characters are enigmatic, and it all feels curiously dream like. It’s a show that demands your full attention, a show that you watch episode by episode, slowly savouring each scene. Despite a few flaws, the eight episodes feel far too short, and you’ll finish up craving more. With Season two already confirmed, and coming in at a heftier ten episodes long, it’s thrilling to think about where Fuller and Green are going to take us next.