Having never read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, I was assigned by my Den Of Geek overlords with a curious task: to attend the European Premiere of the incoming TV adaptation and judge it purely on the merits of what was put on screen, paying no heed (since I really couldn’t) to what it did and didn’t borrow from the much-beloved book.
The episode was being screened in an old church in London, and after being baffled by an entryway that was half red carpet and half bark-on-the-floor ‘immersive experience’, I sat myself down in a wooden pew and prepared to be amazed, disappointed, or somewhere in between. Mr Gaiman himself popped up on the screen via pre-recorded message, hyping me and the other journos up and apologising in advance ‘for all the blood.’ Suffice to say, I was intrigued.
The lights dimmed, and a Technicolour wonder began to play out on the big screen. Religious iconography and all my favourite mod cons were spliced together in style and set to music. Clashing imagery and ideas battled for attention. Everyone hushed down. I was impressed, and clued into the themes of the show within a minute flat. And that was just the title sequence.
In the interests of protecting you from spoilers, I’m going to be a little coy about the hour of entertainment that followed. Visually, it was luscious and luxurious, making it obvious that the American network Starz has spared no expense to bring this fantasy world – one where ancient gods and modern obsessions are personified and planning to fight each other – onto our screens.
The episode suited being up on a big screen. It was so ruddy HD that every crease in every shirt was visible, and every bead of sweat on lead Ricky Whittle’s head felt weighty and important. There were also barmy dream sequences that showcased some wonderful design flourishes, and a brace of god-introducing set pieces that remain seared into my brain days later. I don’t want to tell you what these scenes involved, but I will tell you that Yetide Badaki’s Bilquis and Bruce Langley’s Technical Boy are the characters I most want to spend more time with.
We only get tantalising glimpses of those two here, with most of the runtime being dedicated to Ian McShane’s mysterious Mr Wednesday and Ricky Whittle’s recently-released-from-prison monolith of man, Shadow Moon (who isn’t one of the gods; his mum was just a hippy with a flair for choosing names). It probably isn’t much of a spoiler to say that these two meet on a plane, and that they’re in a car together before long.
Chemistry between these two is absolutely vital, or the ideas American Gods chucks at us would surely seem highly unpalatable. Thankfully, there’s some serious alchemy at work whenever McShane’s Wednesday and Whittle’s Shadow are sharing the screen. They bounce off each other like an old school buddy cop odd couple, with McShane bringing the wry humour and Shadow the sceptical grumpiness.
There were a couple of scenes when it felt like the pace was beginning to sag and the atmosphere in the room beginning to diminish (particularly a lengthy bar sequence where Pablo Schreiber’s Mad Sweeney is introduced), but to correct course, and get us back on side, all the show had to do was put Wednesday and Shadow back into a conversation and let the sparks fly.
There were also moments that seemed a bit cliched, namely a Tinder reference that felt shoehorned, Shadow standing atop a mountain and screaming his rage away, and a ‘dun dun dunnnn’ scene near the end that played like a blatant ‘you’ll just have come back next time!’ cliffhanger. It’s a shame, because this show doesn’t need that sort of thing. It doesn’t have to adhere to any rulebook, and it’s a lot better when it doesn’t try to.
The easy chemistry between the leads and those aforementioned introductory scenes for Bilquis and Technical Boy are more than enough to get us intrigued; we don’t need tortured protagonist angst and an ongoing mystery to make us want to tune in again. But, to be fair, Starz is probably trying to play to the broadest possible audience here. Geeks like us might love the weirder stuff and be satisfied with some good casting, but those teases of things to come and overly obvious character beats might be the key to keeping other audiences interested.
This is a show that can do the quiet stuff and big visual bombast equally well, which is quite an achievement. One sequence gets so trippy that it draws to mind the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, while a lengthy chat in a plain old graveyard offers an equally entertaining scene in a totally different way.
Across the board, the casting is excellent, with Whittle standing out as an excellent choice. He can do brooding and he can do humour, which is a tough blend to find on TV these days. Shadow’s our cypher, and with the wrong actor in the part, the oddness of this journey might be too much to swallow. But Whittle keeps the ship steady, being cool and quiet when the show needs him to be and bringing humour and heart when there’s space for it.
Ian McShane, obviously, is great as well. At this point he could deliver a charming and convincing performance in his sleep, but he doesn’t rest on his laurels and phone it in here. He takes the tonal shifts in his stride and introduces this fantastical world through a wry lens, which should help sceptics find a way in if they happen to catch the pilot.
Of course, none of this would be possible without a tight script. There are some huge concepts to sell here, and showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green tread the line between throwing too much in and not giving us enough information very well indeed. And they make space for laughs despite all the other plates they’re spinning. Despite those quibbles I mentioned earlier, I was very impressed with this. And director David Slade deserves a big old pat on the back as well. Visually, the quality never wavered.
Oh, and Gaiman wasn’t kidding about the blood. This pilot episode is bookended with some properly visceral violence. The opening scene is barbaric and brutal and bore little resemblance to the rest of the episode, and the closing image… well, I won’t spoil it for you, but it was bloody brilliant. I’ll definitely be tuning in for the rest of this.
American Gods arrives on Starz, in the USA, on Sunday April 30th. Here in the UK, episode 1 will arrive on Amazon Prime on Monday May 1st.