American Gods: What to Expect

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Bryan Fuller is full-on adapting Neil Gaiman’s book. Here’s what book readers and novices can expect from the Starz show.

American Gods is finally coming to television. Published in 2001, the book by Neil Gaiman is more than cinematic enough to warrant an adaptation, but it’s never made it to the screen until now.

And thank God for that.

Had it been made into a movie, the 700-odd page book would have had to be hacked up and reworked to fit into two hours. The atmosphere might have survived, but the story would have suffered. If it had been picked up by network television it might have had the time, but it would have lost a lot to the censors. Neil Gaiman writes children’s books, it’s true, but American Gods is not one of them.

If the first four episodes released to critics are anything to go on (and they ought to be, as they’re fully half the season), Starz is really giving the book the adaptation it deserves. The season’s eight 1-hour episodes are set to cover, according to Neil Gaiman, the first third of the plot. But the resulting pace is far from slow, instead giving the action room to play out as it should. There are no corners cut, no scenes or characters combined for the sake of efficiency.

And safe from the censorship rules of non-premium TV, it’s free to be exactly as bloody and profane and sexually charged as it ought to be.

This is a real boon for Executive Producer and Co-Showrunner Bryan Fuller, creator of NBC’s critically-acclaimed but ultimately cancelled Hannibal. (And if you ever want to read about Hannibal, I’m your man). Airing as part of the summer Thursday Night Lineup, Fuller’s previous show suffered from battles with the network and low ratings. And while it pushed the envelope as far as it could, it came up against obvious censorship walls.

American Gods, to put it simply, is Bryan Fuller unleashed. It’s not hard to imagine it as what Hannibal might have been, free from network constrictions. This is due in large part to the very similar atmosphere: the cast and production credits are a who’s who of Hannibal veterans.

The music in particular is like an old friend. Composed and supervised by Hannibal’s Brian Reitzell, it dances across the line between noise and music in a wonderfully effective way. It often lingers in the background as little more than a droning, coming forward out of nowhere every now and again with a discernible melody, its spareness making it all the more intense. After the melody fades, you find yourself listening more closely to the muted, hidden tones that are always present and letting on more than you know.

And then there’s the violence. Make no mistake — American Gods is bloody. (If you have made the mistake, the very first scene will set you straight). But while the violence is rampant, it’s delightfully stylized. When the blood flows, it’s not quite the consistency or color of blood. It’s a more vibrant red, almost pink. And it’s thinner, not so much flowing as splashing. It is, in a word, beautiful.

Pablo Schreiber (Mad Sweeney)

But while the violence is certainly elevated, the main reason it’s so striking is that the show as a whole is stunning to look at. The clouds alone are a feat, amassing as a constant reminder of the coming storm. They’re a lovely, concise demonstration of the show’s rare opportunity to be as surreal as it wants while remaining “realistic.”

Or at least realistic in a sense. American Gods takes place in our world — it’s just governed by laws we haven’t paid attention to before. And the surreal realism of the visuals intentionally destabilizes us and blurs our understanding of what we’re seeing. One scene in particular in episode 2 is a gorgeous, rolling transition between landscapes that both challenges and welcomes the viewer to accept it as “real.”

Another thing that’s handled well is the issue of race. It’s far from swept under the rug in the book, of course — the horrors of slavery are discussed frankly, and while Shadow is unsure of his heritage, he knows for certain that he’s not white.

But the show goes deeper. It could have stopped simply with representation: putting together a diverse cast of characters, knowingly naming its setting “America,” and calling it a day. Instead, these characters talk about the implications of their being together. Rather than declare itself colorblind (which might have been a tempting option), the show works the matter of race into the fabric of the script.

It doesn’t overdo it, but neither does it shy away. It’s a very good balance.

Ian McShane (Mr. Wednesday), Ricky Whittle (Shadow Moon)

The casting is superb, as well.

When I read American Gods years ago, I cast Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Shadow and Tom Waits as Wednesday. They played the entire book out in my mind’s eye, and they both did a stellar job, Tom Waits in particular. It’s a real testament to Ian McShane, then, that he’s completely obliterated poor Mr. Waits and claimed the role for himself in the recesses of my brain.

He is Wednesday.

And while I love The Rock, I’m glad I’m watching Ricky Whittle instead. He can rage with the best of them, but what’s most striking is his subtlety, his silences when the absurdity gets to be too much.

(Should we worry that the two stars of American Gods are actually English? Considering the author of the book is, too, we can probably let it slide).

While the two leads are excellent, it’s the supporting gods who really come to life. And while they stay remarkably true to the book, they’ve been retouched just enough to come across as fresh. Orlando Jones as Mr. Nancy, in particular, is a little less laid back, a little angrier about race relations in America.

Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) has gotten the most serious update, and it’s pitch perfect. When American Gods was published in 2001, the internet was a completely different animal. It was the realm of the fedora wearers and basement dwellers in leetspeak t-shirts. Technical understanding was achingly uncool, the domain of a select un-elite.

Bruce Langley (Technical Boy)

But that was 16 years ago. Since then, the internet has become integral to our lives and the birthright of, well, anyone born since American Gods was published. For the young, technical fluency isn’t a curse — it’s a given. Any social ineptitude comes from the confidence of youth, not the awkwardness of geekdom. Technical Boy has clearly been written by someone who understands this difference, and he comes across as blessedly up-to-date, instead of the old-fashioned “hacker” or off-the-mark Sheldon Cooper he could have been.

It’s the sign of a sure and modern hand behind the show, and it’s very reassuring.

By the same token, however, Media (Gillian Anderson) telling Shadow that she is the future, while embodying Lucille Ball in a series of flat screen TVs, feels just a smidge out of date. People are still consuming media, sure, but the youth of today are torrenting it or streaming it with their parents’ cable logins, not buying expensive TVs. And they’re sure as hell not watching I Love Lucy.

Oh well. At least Anderson is excellent.

Ricky Whittle (Shadow Moon), Ian McShane (Mr Wednesday)

All in all, American Gods is in beyond capable hands. It’s visually stunning, superbly written and performed, and remarkably true to the source. If you haven’t read the book, please still watch it. You can share in Shadow’s disorientation and wonder as the world opens up around you and you see things as they really are.

And then you should read the book anyway.

American Gods premiers in the US this Sunday, April 30th, at 9 pm. You can watch it on television on Starz or download the Starz app to stream it online. Outside the US it will be available for streaming on Monday, May 1st, through Amazon Prime.

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Liz has an MA in English and a lot of time on her hands.