Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods takes all manner of clichés and bends them and twists them until they emerge all shiny and new. It’s a new mythology; it’s a road trip; it’s a mismatched buddy movie, and more. And it’s absolutely brilliant.
Bryan Fuller has produced legendary TV like Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies and Hannibal – all absolutely brilliant. Michael Green, with whom he created TV’s take on American Gods (Starz, Sundays, 9/8C), has had equally wonderful shows – like Jack & Bobby, Everwood, Kings and The River.
I’ve read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods three times – the last being about ten years ago (I deliberately refrained from reading it again so I could come to the Starz series with no chance of comparing the two) – so when I say that the first three episodes of American Gods blow them all out of the water, I am not, in the least little bit, kidding.
American Gods opens with a sequence in which a band of Vikings arrives in North America a century before the earliest known visit by Vikings – to a wealth of ill fortune that leads to an event that lets us know how the All-Father of the Norse gods would even know of the existence of the New World.
Then we meet Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle, The 100) as he learns he’s being released from prison a few days early on compassionate grounds – his wife has been killed in an automobile accident.
His flight home takes a turn – placing him on a different flight where an apparently double-booked seat finds him shuffled into first class. There he encounters a man with whom he had a brief word in the airport.
This man – who suggests Shadow call him Wednesday (Ian McShane, John Wick 1 & 2, Ray Donovan) – offers him a job. And he seems to know more about Shadow’s situation than Shadow does (‘I have a job. ‘No, you don’t.’).
While Mr. Wednesday persuaded Shadow to work for him, we cut to another intriguing character – Bilquis (Yetide Badaki, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare), an African love goddess whose worshippers/lovers are unborn (it’s quite the visual!).
And before long we will meet Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) and Media (Gillian Anderson, The X-Files, The Fall) and several other characters from various mythologies old and new.
We will learn well before Shadow, that there is a war coming between the old gods (like Wednesday and Bilquis) and the new (Technical Boy and Media) in what amounts to a war for belief/faith. The more people who believe, the stronger the god (in an upcoming episode, Shadow enquires as to how many Jesuses there are and Wednesday rattles off a list – informing him that since is a lot of need for Jesus, there are a lot of Jesuses).
The series premiere, The Bone Orchard, is written by Fuller and Green and directed by David Slade (Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night, Hannibal). It has the slightly jaunty pace of a road trip movie with slightly slower pacing for scenes of importance and impact – and slightly quicker for action sequences.
The cinematography, by Jo Willems (30 Days of Night, The Hunger Games: 1, 2 & Catching Fire), is so perfectly composed that everything you need see in every scene is precisely what’s on the screen. If that’s a conversation between Wednesday and shadow, or a scene of an explosion of blood (or the titular bone orchard), then that’s what you get.
Whittle is superb as the ex-con whose world has been turned upside down and shaken up – outwardly, he mostly maintains his prison stoicism but you can see the WTFs behind his eyes when things get weird.
McShane has never been more charming or more dangerous (and I say that as a fan of both the Lovejoy series and the John Wick movies). He has a gift for taking lines that should not work, or at least wouldn’t work for anyone else and making them pure honey.
Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, the novel, is a fun fantasy romp that also examines religion and superstition and wonders if there’s any difference between the two.
Fuller & Green’s American Gods gets that right – along with Gaiman’s gift for being able to distinguish between when it’s right to be subtle and when to go ape$#!+ crazy – and knowing the array of gradients between the extremes.
American Gods is definitely the best new show of 2017 – and maybe the twenty-teens. It’s the best work either Bryan Fuller or Michael Green have ever done.
Final Grade: A+