American Gods episode 1 review: The Bone Orchard

Ricky Whittle is a great lead but Ian McShane steals the show in episode one of American Gods, which has all the makings of a huge hit...

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free version is here.

1.1 The Bone Orchard

From the opening moments, American Gods is nothing short of a reminder of other loved, lamented television projects from Bryan Fuller. A rich, dark colour palate dominates the cold open, which features Vikings arriving in America a hundred years before Leif Erikson’s famous cross-Atlantic voyage, and over 650 years prior to Christopher Columbus kicking off the colonisation of North and South America. These Vikings, expert sailors and valiant warriors, find this new world quite inhospitable. One man is felled by a comical amount of arrows. The others are vexed by biting insects, hunger, and inhospitable lands. These Vikings eventually return to their homeland, never to sail again, but they leave behind something very important to them: their one-eyed warrior God.

This is the first bit of world-building accomplished by the American Gods crew, who have an interesting task ahead of them. Eight episodes to establish characters, create a universe, and somehow turn the dense world of Neil Gaiman into something palatable for television viewers. Fortunately, American Gods has a coin up its sleeve in the form of Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle).

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Moon, who only wants to get out of prison and be reunited with his wife Laura (Emily Browning), finds himself cast into a world far beyond his understanding after a series of tragic events. He falls under the spell of a smooth-talking mystery man dubbed Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), who recruits Shadow to be his driver, bodyguard, castellan, and aide-de-camp. As it turns out, Wednesday might be up to something, and a lot of people want to find out what that is, apparently by beating Shadow to a pulp.

This is the first step into a big, weird world, and the viewing audience will be taking the steps right alongside Shadow as he learns just what he’s gotten himself into. Ricky Whittle is spot on as Shadow; he’s confused, he’s careful, he’s stoic, and he’s violent when appropriate. Shadow’s grief and loss is a seething thing, and it’s easy enough for Wednesday, Mad Sweeny (Pablo Schreiber), and Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) to manipulate him for their own purposes, whether it’s assistance, a fight, or information.

In many ways, American Gods feels like the synthesis of the career of Bryan Fuller. He co-wrote the pilot episode with Michael Green, he’s the executive producer, and he’s the guiding hand behind the adaptation coming to the screen. The show indulges in everything Fuller’s name represents in the television world. The special effects are seamless and hallucinatory. The violence is over-the-top and bloody. The characters are compelling. The writing is strong out of the gate, barring a few moments that are deliberately cheesy.

The mythology is dense, particularly in the first episode, but with a strong grounding character, it’s a manageable feat. Shadow is learning about the world around him; so Fuller and Green use that as a way to provide exposition without doing simple exposition dumps. Wednesday reveals himself in his interactions with Shadow (and the lady at the airport); Technical Boy reveals himself in flashy CGI and a constant stream of obnoxious vape clouds; he’s every YouTube streaming superstar or reality television figure smashed into one obnoxious package, right down to the ridiculous haircut and red skinny jeans (the anonymous cronies with faces like blank Twitter eggs is a very nice touch). Ricky Whittle is a great lead, imposing physically but with an expressive face, but it’s Ian McShane who steals the show upon entry. He’s charming, sleazy, and a fast-talker who baffles with bullshit when he can’t dazzle with intellect. Bilquis (Yetide Bakadi) also has quite an introduction.

The episode isn’t perfect. There are some pacing issues, and the musical cues are very much on the nose, but there’s an energy to the thing that propels it. The tonal shifts could also be hard for some viewers to handle, as it veers from comedy to drama to psychedelic horror in turns (Betty Gilpin’s Audrey is a great example of how it can work from a dramatic standpoint). Still, director David Slade handles it confidently, putting all his experience working with Fuller on Hannibal to good use. The comedy bits land. The emotional moments have resonance. The world-building begins quickly and expediently, and it’s handled with the style most viewers associate as part of the Fuller brand.

American Gods probably won’t be a disappointment to the fans of Neil Gaiman’s work. It’s crafted with care and precision, and once the world around Shadow is more fleshed out, should find better footing on which to balance comedy, drama, and mystery. The updates, by and large, work, and the stuff taken from Gaiman’s book should speak for itself. If the show can continue to mesh new material with book material, mix comedy and drama, and showcase the incredible performers signed on, it’s going to be a huge success.

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US Correspondent Ron Hogan is very excited about the idea of Ian McShane on his TV for eight episodes as the most perfect Wednesday imaginable. Find more by Ron daily at PopFi.