American Gods Season 1 (Starz)
Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman
Written by Bryan Fuller, Neil Gaiman, Michael Green, Maria Melnik, Bekah Brunstetter, Seamus Kevin Fahey, and David Graziano
Directed by David Slade, Adam Kane, Vincenzo Natali, Floria Sigismondi, and Craig Zobel
Shadow Moon is a convict about to be released from prison following a failed robbery. He finds himself in the midst of personal tragedy as soon as he re-enters the outside world. However, a strange man named Mr. Wednesday crosses paths with Shadow and offers him a job to drive him around the country. Shadow beings to learn about the growing tensions between the transplanted gods of the Old World and the increasingly powerful new American Gods. With each stop, Shadow’s fundamental understanding of the universe begins to change.
American Gods is based on the 2001 novel by Neil Gaiman, which I read back in college and have vague memories of. I remember Shadow, Mr. Wednesday, and the new gods…the rest are apparently lost to the years. I do remember enjoying the book like I do with most of Gaiman’s work. Additionally, Bryan Fuller was one of the leading minds behind this television adaptation, and he is another creator whose work I enjoy quite a bit. Most audiences know him as the man behind Hannibal, but my personal favorite is Pushing Daisies, an Amelie-esque fantasy that puts a twist on the murder mystery procedural. So this seemed like it would be a show that was going to click with me.
American Gods is full to the brim with interesting ideas. The new gods: Technology, Media, and Mr. World are fascinating personification of concepts that have taken the place of traditional deities. I don’t think we dig into them enough in this first season because I was clamoring for more screen time from them with the finale episode’s close.
Many of the episodes open with vignettes detailing the relationship between a particular god and their devoted worshippers in the New World. We see Vikings, pre-Leif Erickson, coming to the shores Eastern shores of North American and resorting to some brutal tactics to appease Odin and return home. There’s an Egyptian woman who passes away and is ushered into the Underworld by a very comforting Anubis. The best opening sequence features Orlando Jones as Anansi, portrayed as an anachronistic warning from the future to a boat of African slaves, detailing what the next 500+ years will be like for their people.
But all is not grand with American Gods. One of this season’s biggest problems was pacing and plot. The first couple episodes generate a lot of momentum, but I felt that the second half of the season slammed on the brakes and didn’t pay off on the great promise of the opening half. One episode that truly irritated me was “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney.” This was a lovely episode in that its production values were very high, the acting wasn’t bad, every detail was fantastic. But it literally had no connection or bearing on the overall plot of the series. A decision was made to dual cast Emily Browning (who regularly plays Laura) as Essie, the protagonist of the episode. I can’t for the life of me figure out why she was cast in both roles. Such a decision would imply that there are thematic parallels between the characters? There were none. Nothing that happens to Essie, 200+ years prior seems to have any connection to what happens to Laura in the episode, other than they both know who Mad Sweeney is. This truly felt like a momentum killing episode that will likely scoot under the radar for people caught up in how neat everything looks. Beneath the incredibly beautiful exterior, there is little connective tissue to the series.
I also had a lot of issues with the lack of purpose Bilquis was given in this first season. She’s introduced in the first episode and keeps popping up doing the exact same thing, not being developed any further really into the season finale. Once it is established, she is a god, and how she takes sacrifices, then you need to at least develop her character. I was reminded of the Ifrit storyline and how a seemingly slight opening vignette tied back into the main storyline. I could have seen the first Bilquis scene being one of those opening moments and then surprising us later by having her intersect paths with a leading player. The main retort to this will be that “Of course that will happen, but in a subsequent season.” I personally think that is bullshit. Having watched some non-Dr. Who BBC dramas they do a fascinating thing in having each season be a closed story. You have all the plot beats to deliver a complete story, and if they get another season, they will find new threads out of that old story to pursue.
Game of Thrones’ popularity is having a slightly damaging effect on the television landscape. Think about the superhero movie craze or its cousin the Cinematic Universe frenzy. The people who greenlight these things lose sight of what people liked about them in the first place. The same could be said about the Young Adult lit movie boom of a few years back. Studios just toss money around to buy any and everything forgetting about the fundamentals that made them enjoyable. I suspect Starz has been noting the popularity of Game of Thrones and American Gods was a property for television and film that has been shopped around for about as long as the book has been out. It could make a great mini-series, but an executive wants this to be Starz’s GoT, so it has to be a multi-season, epic. This means stretching a 500+ page book out to god knows how many seasons. To do that the pacing of the adaptation feels off and you gain and lose momentum like a new driver learning how to use the gas and brake pedals.
Bryan Fuller always makes beautiful television, he has a strong eye for aesthetics. The vision scenes here, while not as good as the mindblowing work on Hannibal, are still powerful and atmospheric. The problem lies in decompressing a text without knowing when the end will be. From a business point of view, it makes sense. As long as Starz keeps asking for more we keep making more. For someone who has had the bad luck Fuller has, I hope he has this job for a long time. But in the process, I suspect the core story of American Gods will be diluted by the need to make episodes that, while visually lovely and well acted, serve only as filler for an 8 episode order.