Neil Gaiman is a tremendously gifted writer. Sensitive, ambitious, brilliant. The worlds that he crafts on paper are simultaneously fantastical and grounded; there are just enough rules for readers to feel engrossed but not so many that they aren’t constantly filled with wonder. His central characters, often terse, observational, and utterly human, are brilliant guides to the mysteries and magic he so excels at. And he’s written some pretty solid “Doctor Who” scripts, too.
Bryan Fuller is a great showrunner. If he had only made “Dead Like Me,” or “Pushing Daisies,” or “Hannibal” individually, he’d be a good one. But he has made all three. I am particularly indebted to him because “Pushing Daisies,” which only lasted a few seasons, was one of the first shows I ever loved; it was clever and colorful and cruel. And “Hannibal” might be even better, as televised horror has never looked so hauntingly beautiful. (And, despite what people may say about Anthony Hopkins, what Fuller got out of Mads Mikkelsen in that show is the best iteration of Hannibal Lecter.)
So, when I heard that Fuller, along with “Logan” co-writer Michael Green and the almighty Gaiman, was adapting “American Gods,” one of Gaiman’s best and most ambitious works, for the small screen, I almost foamed at the mouth.
“American Gods” presents a world in which all of the disparaging groups of people who came to this country over the centuries to explore as the authors or victims of colonial violence bring their gods with them. In this world, amateur bodybuilder and coin-trick artist Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) has an exceptionally bad day. Looking forward to being freed from prison after robbing a casino, Shadow gets the most unfairly balanced good news/bad news scenario imaginable. Good news: he’s being let out of prison a week early. Bad news: his wife, Laura (played by “God Help The Girl”’s Emily Browning), is dead.
While attempting to make it home for Laura’s funeral, Shadow meets a mysterious, eloquent, somewhat off-putting con man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane). Through a strange series of events, including a fist fight with a very tall man who claims he is a leprechaun, Shadow ends up working for Wednesday, and they begin traveling across Middle America, always by car, never on the highway. For what purpose, Wednesday does not divulge, but he certainly seems stranger and more powerful than your average con artist.
Produced for Starz, and their second epic fantasy series after “Outlander,” “American Gods” does what a good television adaptation should: it takes what makes the novel so spellbinding and tweaks and adds to that to make it come alive on the screen in exciting ways.
For one, Shadow, whose race was never disclosed in the pages of Gaiman’s work, is played by a person of color. Two episodes in, and Whittle is already phenomenal in the role. It is difficult to take a character so stoic and terse and make him into the compelling center of this world, but he does admirable work. It doesn’t hurt that Whittle talks twice as much as his book counterpart, which is still about half as much as the average person. It also doesn’t hurt that Whittle is incredibly handsome. He is compelling in a fight, alone on screen in front of his wife’s grave, playing the world’s deadliest game of checkers, or sitting in silence at a dinner table, mouth closed and eyes bright. I have never seen Whittle before this show, but I imagine, if his performance continues with this level of quality, he’s bound for a long, remarkable career.
This show is mostly a two-header, a series of conversations and events that are either driven by or witnessed by the pair of Shadow and Wednesday, with Wednesday holding the power. Naturally McShane, so skilled at playing unscrupulous authority figures, was natural to cast for this role. Standing a foot shorter than Whittle, McShane still holds the command of nearly every scene he’s in and plays a role he’s taken on so often with more mystery, wit, and strangeness than he ever has before. It takes a remarkable actor to make a line like “I offer you the worm from my beak, and you look at me like I fucked your mom?” work. Luckily, McShane is a remarkable actor.
Fuller’s television shows are always aesthetically daring and full of elaborate sets, over-saturated colors, and orchestral flourishes. This aesthetic seems tailor made for a show like “American Gods,” where the ordinary can become great or terrible in a split second. There are haunting images in these first few episodes: a giant orchard of trees whose branches move like limbs, a buffalo with burning eyes, dandelion petals turned to lightning bolts, horrific virtual reality interrogations, all rendered in stunning shots and colors. Smartly, this show has kept in the interludes about how these gods came to this country and used them to create elaborate historical flashbacks. The show also keeps the character of Bilquis, a fan favorite, whose opening scene, bathed in red, is as strange, potent, and as exciting a thing on television as I’ve seen this year. And this is the year that “Legion” came out.
“American Gods,” the novel, is massive and ambitious, and, as a byproduct, has many shortcomings. The most glaring of these is the fact that the book never adequately addresses the violence in this country against indigenous people and people of color. As the series’ protagonist is a black man, there have already been a few conversations and scenes within the show about the particularity of that experience. But, most potently, the show’s second episode, “The Secret of Spoons,” begins with a surreal, brutal, and desperate scene on a slave ship. It is too soon to say whether the show will continue to reckon with the constant violence within the American identity, and they certainly have not done so yet with this country’s indigenous population. What’s clear so far, though, is that it is at least written and directed by people who understand that calling this country a “nation of immigrants” neglects centuries of oppression and violence.
The jury is out on whether “American Gods” rectifies the novel’s faults, but it certainly doubles down on its strengths. The book provides its readers with a dizzying array of fascinating side characters, and the show utilizes an incredible cast to bring them to life, including Peter Stormare, Orlando Jones, Pablo Schreiber, the great Cloris Leachman, and the great Gillian Anderson to name a few. Incorporating actors with this level of talent and gravitas deepens the world to the point where it’s not all too crazy to consider that gods may be walking among us.
Ultimately, at least in its early stages, “American Gods” is exactly what it needs to be: written by a daring writer, guided by a daring showrunner, and led by incredible performances captured in breathtaking imagery. Something this clever, this ambitious, this straight-up good, almost compels you to kneel before it.