You can’t help but notice the sky inAmerican Gods. Looming stormcloudsand rainbow nebulae dominate the view duringoutdoor scenes, evokinga sense of religious wonder. The message is: humans are very small, and theres a lot going beyond our understanding. An effective introduction to the epic mythology behind Neil Gaimans novel.
American Gods is a meandering road trip; a series of interlocking stories about deities who arrived in the U.S. as immigrants. As the modern world moved on to worship Jesus and abstract concepts like Media and Technology, the old gods decayed. The survivors now exist as sideshow figures like a leprechaun who does coin tricks in bars,or a jinn whoworks as a cab driver.
Ricky Whittle (The 100) stars as Shadow Moon, a brooding ex-con who just lost his wife. Hired as abodyguard by the con artist Mr. Wednesday (aka the Norse god Odin, played by Ian McShane), hegets dragged into an apocalyptic confrontation between the old gods and the new.
Shadow is preternaturally calm in the novel, a quiet protagonist whose thoughts shape our experience of the story. But this kind of internal characterization is hard to translate onscreen, so Whittles Shadow is more talkative and emotive. He performsthe traditional everyman role of reacting to the weirdness of his new life, which isn’t alway necessary here.American Gods works best when you accept its magic at face value.
Whittle isn’t exactly a weak link, but hes overshadowed by Ian McShanes twinkly-eyed sleazeas Mr. Wednesday, and star turns by recurring gods like Orlando Jonesasthe West African trickster Anansi. It’s one of those shows wherethe supporting cast are just far more interesting than the protagonist.
American Gods’unique brand of fantasy
The book alwaysfelt like a low-budget operation, taking place in fleabag motels and roadside attractions, with brief forays into hallucinatory weirdness. But Supernatural already covered that flavor of gritty fantasy,so Starz focused on showcasingthe magic ofAmerican Gods. With atmospheric production design and dialogueinspired byfireside storytelling, you’re nudged into accepting a fairytale mindset.
Fantasy filmmakers should take note of American Gods visual effects, which give the show a thoroughly individual aesthetic. Through clever cinematography and production design, we shift between the real world and dreamlike interludes with the gods.
When Shadow enters the bone orchard of pale, grasping trees, it looks more like early Tim Burton than Game of Thrones. This dark surrealism is interesting to compare with Preacher, another visually distinctive supernatural show, steeped in Americana. Where Preacherfeels stylish but shallow, American Gods makes thoughtful use of every detail from lighting design to its choice of aspect ratio. Even CGI-hating luddites will gasp at moments like Anubis ushering someone into the afterlife,transitioning seamlessly from the real world to a luminous desert landscape.
— American Gods (@AmericanGodsSTZ) April 7, 2017
Its hard to imagine a betterchoice ofshowrunners than Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (Heroes). Fullerspecializes in stylish, macabre fantasy, accompanied bya coterie of talented collaborators includingcomposer Brian Reitzell, production designer Patti Podesta, and actors Kristen Chenoweth and Gillian Anderson.American Godsis a marriage betweenHannibal‘s visual panache andthe mythic aura of Michael Green’sKings, acontemporary Biblical epicstarring Ian McShane as a tyrannical monarch.Together, the two showrunners set precisely the right tone for American Gods – while changing very little from the source material.
In the four episodes made available to critics, American Gods is an unusually direct (often word-for-word) adaptation.Purists will appreciatesuch a loyal recreation, but it does draw attentionto some pre-existing flaws. For instance, it could have done more tocounteractthe sexism of the novel.
Told from Shadows viewpoint, the novel is shaped by the male gaze. Gaiman can barely go 10 pages without describing someones tits, in a story dominated by speeches fromMr. Wednesday, an elderly creep with an oily kind of charm. Likewise, the shownamechecks teats and fat-breasted women in the opening voiceover, but waits 25 minutes to give any meaningful screentime to a female character. Shes a love goddess with an extravagantly explicit sex scene.
So, American Godstreads a familiar line. Is the show sexist, or does it simply depict the reality of its male protagonist? Shadow lives in a world of men(prison; Mr. Wednesday), idolizing his wife without really understanding her. This attitude makes sense in context, but it’s still surprisingto see such male-dominated material from Bryan Fuller. Hemade his name withfemale-led dramas,and rewroteHannibal to add more women.
With that in mind, its interesting to see what was changed, and what stayed the same. Gaiman helped to expand the source material,devoting more attention to the supporting cast.That means more time with the gods, and more time with female characters like Shadow’s wife Laura. She’s nowarepudiation of the old “dead wife as motivation” clich, reintroduced as a flawed individual with a backstory outside her marriage.
Most of these changes arewelcome additions, with one exception. Episode 1 is inexplicably peppered with lynching imagery around Shadow, who is biracial. Why introduce such a politically fraught idea, with no explanation? In a show about the melting-pot nature of American culture, starring a diverse cast of immigrant characters, its a baffling choice.
Thankfully this bizarre detail vanishes by episode 2, and we begin to understand where the show’s strength really lies: in the little vignettes about the gods themselves.
Neil Gaiman is a prolific short story writer, and his two most famous worksSandman and American Godsare both long, meandering tales with frequent detours to focus on minor characters. Thats why American Gods would make an awful movie, and why the show flourishes during those standalone moments where it zooms in on the everyday life of a god. Fantasy dramas oftentry to over-explain themselves,but American Godsjust lets you sink into its world. It gives us a series ofcontext-free, gorgeously realized short films about mythical figures, meldinggrimy reality with a powerful sense of ancient magic.
American Gods begins on April 30. The Daily Dot will publish weekly recaps as the show airs.