This American Gods review is based on the first four episodes of the season.
There are so many possible entry points to Starz’ American Gods. The TV series adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s bestselling book about religion, immigration, and the fight for the soul of America is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to talent both in front of and behind the camera.
Are you a Neil Gaiman fan? A Bryan Fuller fan? A fan of Ian McShane, Gillian Anderson, or Orlando Jones? All of those people have played a part in bringing this story to the screen. To be honest, it doesn’t much matter if there is a specific actor, writer, or story element that would draw you to this project. The American Gods TV show is something special — for anyone who has ever believed in anything or simply questioned the structure of existence. This show is for you.
The American Gods TV show is co-created and co-written by Bryan Fuller, showrunner of Hannibal, Pushing Daisies, and Wonderfalls — all which feel relevant in the creation of this on-screen story about death, belief, and the occasional rotting corpse. When Fuller was briefly hired as the showrunner for Star Trek: Discovery, we wrote an entire feature about why the Star Trek franchise was in good hands. He brings the same meticulous care, vision, and imagination to all of his shows. American Gods is no exception.
The other co-creator/writer is Michael Green, who not only created short-lived prestige drama (and Den of Geek favorite) Kings, but recently co-penned the script for Logan, an uncomfortably topical story about the failure of the American dream. American Gods features characters fighting for the soul of America; Logan features characters who don’t have the luxury of such violent, arrogant struggles. They just want to get the heck out of Dodge and you can’t blame them. Though these stories may exist in completely different mediums and genres, they feel like thematic cousins in the best possible way.
I ground this review with these co-showrunners because, for years, Green and Fuller have been making weird, wonderful, often epic shows that inspire loyal, but ultimately too small audiences to sustain their momentum on network TV. Finally, however, the TV industry is starting to catch up with their kind of storytelling.
The TV game is no longer wholly about how many people watch — not in this era of fractured audiences and intense competition — but how passionately we watch it. Will someone buy a Starz subscription to watch American Gods? Then it has value. The passion that Fuller and Green’s shows inspire has value. And now it has a home: the newly-branded “Obsessable” Starz, a premium cable network that is actively looking to court not only viewers, but fans.
Why am I waxing poetic for so long about the creators of this TV adaptation? Because the curious weirdness they have brought to their previous projects is on full display in American Gods. More than that: it feels like they have found a story and network where that kind of narrative ambition can thrive. And with a Neil Gaiman story no less!
Plot-wise, American Gods is about the brewing battle between the Old Gods and New Gods of America, as seen through the eyes of ex-con Shadow Moon. When Shadow’s wife dies mere days before he is to be released from prison, the mysterious Mr. Wednesday manages to persuade Shadow into becoming his bodyguard, drawing him into this world of magic, faith, or something in between.
Shadow and Mr. Wednesday couldn’t be any more different. All that Mr. Wednesday is comes from belief — his own belief and the belief of others. Meanwhile, Shadow only believes in the things he can see, touch, and understand. When his trip with Mr. Wednesday leads him to see and do things he can’t explain, things that don’t fit into his understanding of the world, he is faced with a choice.
“The world is either crazy or you are. They’re both solid options,” Mr. Wednesday tells Shadow during their cross-country recruiting road trip. The same can be said for any timid viewers perhaps unused to the eclectic imagery, extreme (though not superfluous) violence, or even thematic embrace of religion and faith: It doesn’t matter where you come down on the belief spectrum. If you dive into this tale of existential questioning, the narrative journey will be more than worth any lost sanity. “There are bigger sacrifices one might be asked to make than going a little mad.” In other words, just go with it.
The cast has no weak spots, but McShane is particularly great here. The Deadwood star brings gravitas to whatever role he takes, but he spins Mr. Wednesday’s lines like he was born to say them — a fit that, perhaps, owes something to Green, who had plenty of practice writing Shakespearean, existential monologues for McShane in Kings. (An example: “Fair cost for constellation unless strange is a new language and what we’re doing here is vocabulary-building.”) Fuller and Green are doing a relatively straight adaptation of the novel so far, though with a slight fleshing out of female characters. These are often Gaiman’s words, but they have been selected by the showrunners for TV ears and McShane is more than up for the task of making them sound possible.
Whittle holds his own opposite McShane (an example: “Fuck your vocabulary, OK? This is gibberish.”), finally given something to do after his undemanding tenure as Lincoln on The 100. American Gods wouldn’t work half as well if we didn’t care about Shadow. The role may be laconic (especially initially) but he punctures it with moments of desperation, eloquence, and vulnerability that hint at the struggle and pain that’s going on beneath that stoic surface.
Structurally, the main plot in American Gods is a road trip, a narrative that is constantly renewing itself as Shadow and Mr. Wednesday go to new places and meet new gods along the way. However, most episodes are introduced with and/or interrupted by short vignettes titled “Coming to America” and “Somewhere in America,” which also featured in the novel.
The “Coming to America” vignettes tell the stories of how the Old Gods originally came to American shores, while the “Somewhere in America” vignettes show us what certain gods are up to elsewhere in America. As much as I love Shadow’s story, these are the highlights of the show for me. Brief, bright, unflinching peeks into the belief-narratives that make up the wobbly foundation of our country.
A particular “Coming to America” highlight comes in the second episode, “The Secret of the Spoon.” It introduces Orlando Jones’ Anansi, responding to the prayers of men aboard an African slaving ship on its way to America. The segment is oh-so-relevant as Mr. Nancy, as he is sometimes known, outlines to the men-who-would-be-slaves just how much oppression black people will have to go through when they arrive in America, the oppression they are still going through, and suggests that anger isn’t an inappropriate reaction.
The American Gods novel came out more than 15 years ago, in the same year the Twin Towers fell and the American story began to take on a new, if sadly familiar direction. Despite how much the country has changed since then, the themes and elements of this novel feel more relevent than ever. They may require a bit of updating, too, but it’s not at odds with the central narrative or themes of this story. The New Gods don’t look exactly the same, for example. Sixteen years ago, what did we worship when it came to technology and media? Certainly not the things we do now, even if they fall into the same category.
The American Gods TV show doesn’t feel so much like an updating as it does an expansion. It takes the nugget of Gaiman’s story and builds on it it in all possible directions (as he proved with Hannibal, Fuller has a unique talent for adaptation). One would guess that if American Gods makes it to subsequent seasons and to possible spinoffs, then that expansion will only become more ambitious.
However, there’s something about seeing these images and characters on-screen that fundamentally changes this story. I am one of those people who worships the New God of Media (depicted here as a delightfully chamelon-like Gillian Anderson). TV is my preferred form of storytelling. I believe what I can see and feel in long-form, serialized television. There’s something unfair about watching this story as a TV show. It’s as if the New Gods have already won — though, if anything can convince us otherwise, it’s the charismatic McShane.
If America truly is “the only country in the world that wonders what it is,” as Mr. Wednesday describes it, then we are more in need of a show like American Gods than ever. A multicultural, critical story that doesn’t let this country and its people off the hook, while simultaneously showing an empathy and understanding for even the darkest of characters.
In the end, American Gods doesn’t make you choose between belief and nihilism, between America as oppressor and America as oppressed. It recognizes that the truth is probably more complicated than that. It simply wants you to ask the questions and come along for this wild ride. If you do, you won’t be disappointed.
American Gods premieres on April 30th on Starz. For more information about the show, check out our news hub.