After a tumultuous five years in development hell, Neil Gaiman’s post-modern blend of Americana and folklore has finally found its way to TV courtesy of Starz and Amazon. American Gods, an adaptation of Gaiman’s 2001 novel by the same name, is at its heart an examination of faith and the ever-changing nature of the altars at which we worship. Being familiar with Gaiman’s Sandman mythos but never having read American Gods myself, I approached the series not quite knowing what to expect. What I’ve experienced in the first two episodes, however, has me keen to see more.
American Gods follows Shadow Moon, a convict released early upon news of his wife’s death, as he is recruited by the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday as a bodyguard. Wednesday, at first glance a simple con-man, quickly reveals himself to be one of the old Gods inclined on starting a war with the new ones; science, technology, and the like. The episodes themselves open with a vignette; each chronicling the arrival of a people and their god to America, and simultaneously exploring what Gaiman believes to be one of the core facets of the American bedrock.
These openings are excellently crafted, with tight pacing that is echoed throughout the main bodies of the episodes. A switch to a more ‘cinematic’ aspect ratio, coupled with a voice-over helps differentiate these from the rest of the show. Unfortunately, the narration can be a bit verbose and self-important, but this is always one of the slight risks with, and charms of, Gaiman’s works. Particularly praiseworthy is the introduction of the West African trickster god Anansi, a powerfully performed scene that excellently sets up the episode’s running theme. Specifically, how one makes the decision between submitting to oppression or fighting it, even at the cost of one’s life. The smash cut ending to this vignette is used well to this effect. In fact, the show really seems to revel in using smash cuts. While this might normally feel jarring and off-putting, here it serves to accentuate the surrealist imagery embraced by the series.
Wild colour palettes, and thematically in-tune scoring help to further set the scene. In particular, the soundtrack in the first quarter of the first episode creates a pervasive sense of unease in the viewer that matches well the sense of unease in the protagonist’s mind. The visuals, for their part, are simply sublime. Clearly, ludicrous amounts of money have been thrown at the production. This is a welcome necessity, as otherwise the series would have lost much of its dramatic gravitas, given how much it relies on abstract imagery. The confluence of these elements does an excellent job of realising the Gods, and boy are they terrifying.
Further amplifying the presence of the Gods are, of course, the performances themselves. By now we expect nothing short of excellence from Ian McShane, and still he manages to surprise. McShane’s versatility is on display here, as he fills out the variety that might be expected from a con man. Orlando Jones also deserves special mention for his turn as Anansi. He manages to leave a lasting impression with only a brief appearance so far. In addition, Ricky Whittle proves a more than capable lead; reacting pretty much how you’d expect a sane man discovering the insanity of the world to react.
These first two episodes do an excellent job of pulling in viewers and keeping their interest. At points, they can be a bit schizophrenic, throwing a lot of disparate concepts at the viewer with no clear indication that they will be explained later. However, this is more forgiveable in the age of binge watching than it would have been in the past. Television shows, specifically long form dramas have become increasingly serialized. For its part, American Gods keeps a measured pace, and as a consequence, doesn’t frustrate or confound the viewer with too much information. With the exception of the vignettes, it also manages to avoid relying on exposition dumps, to its credit. Explanations are not provided on a platter, but there are more than enough clues for astute viewers to put things together for themselves. As Wednesday says at one point, he’s “easing [us] into it”.
If there’s one thing that really bothers me about the series, it’s the title sequence. It’s loud, garish, and an assault on the senses in all the wrong ways. I can, at least, appreciate the intent behind it; the evocation of traditional tribal and religious chants. Minor gripe aside, the series is definitely worth watching, and it’s fair to say that American Gods has definitely made a believer out of me.