To fantasy fans, author Neil Gaiman is not only the creator of “The Sandman,” “Stardust,” “Coraline” and a litany of incredible short stories; he’s practically a god. It’s fitting, then, that he weighed in on modern devotions and idolatry with the hefty novel “American Gods,” which pits the old gods (of war, of darkness, of death) against the new (of technology, of television, of conspiracy theories.)
Now adapted for Starz into a television series, a story this wild, raw and dripping in blood needs creators who don’t shy from the violent, the painful, or the strange. So who better to bring this bold story of clashing gods to television than Michael Green, co-writer of “Logan,” and Bryan Fuller, the wickedly whimsical visionary behind such deliciously dark series as “Pushing Daisies,” “Dead Like Me,” and “Hannibal”? At SXSW, fans came in force to the convention center theater hosting the first episode’s world premiere. So many showed up that the screening was delayed for 15 minutes while volunteers rushed in more chairs, ignoring fire codes in order to be sure every pilgrim got their place before the altar of “American Gods.”
Adding to the fervor for the new series is an ensemble cast that boasts “Deadwood’s” dastardly Ian McShane, “Orange Is The New Black’s” smirking Pablo Schreiber, “Sleepy Hollow”s adored Orlando Jones, and God’s gift to science-fiction, “The X-Files'” Gillian Anderson. While not all of these acclaimed actors appear in the first episode, it was no matter; the fans were nonetheless reverberating in anticipation, willing and eager to geek out in a chorus of gasps and cheers. And while these did rally over every introduction, every carefully embodied moment from the book (yes, including Bilquis’s man-consuming sex scene), I began to wonder, what’s here for those who don’t already know Gaiman’s story. To them, “American Gods” will surely seem a deeply strange and largely overwhelming experience.
Ricky Whittle stars as Shadow Moon, a mythically named convict introduced during the final days of a prison sentence that’s kept him far from the loving arms of his warm wife Laura (Emily Browning). But for Shadow, good news comes always entangled with bad; he’s being let out a few days early, because Laura has died. The circumstances of her death come in waves, each more devastating than the last, peaking in a graveside scene where her best friend Audrey (a scenery-chewing, scene-stealing and downright sensational Betty Gilpin) tries to seduce Shadow in a pitiable and darkly hilarious attempt to reclaim her “dignity.” And yet this is far from the weirdest thing to happen to Shadow on his way home.
Aboard a plane, he meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday (McShane), a scoundrel who offers Shadow a job that’s lack of description and promise of high pay makes the ex-con instantly suspicious. But fate won’t let him escape this new acquaintance. Thus in a seedy restaurant with cheap chili, a friendly wait staff, and a bar made up to look like a crocodile’s devilish grin, Shadow signs on to be Mr. Wednesday’s right-hand man. The burly hero promptly fights a towering leprechaun (Schreiber), and soon thereafter is ripped into an ambush, swarmed by the nightmarish children of a frog-huffing brat (Bruce Langley) with the fashion sense of Annie Lennox, and big talk of an oncoming war. There’s a battle, bloodshed and many questions left for Shadow to ask as the end credits blare onscreen.
Like the book, the show takes its sweet time world building. Fans of the novel will likely have patience, relishing in the careful casting, graphic gore, and swooning, smoky atmosphere Fuller and Green have pulled together. But how fun will this first episode be for newcomers to Gaiman’s god-stuffed saga? Personally, I found “American Gods” debut ep visually striking, and sunk happily into its swaggering moodiness. But its story–even though it’s one I know–left me cold. Whittle brings an easy strength to Shadow, but the character’s stoicism keeps his dilemmas at a distance. I felt far more empathy for his grieving friend Audrey, who wore her pain on her rain-soaked black dress, and who threw herself into snarling speeches of regret, and then the beefy embrace of her late best friend’s husband, desperately seeking catharsis. Meanwhile, Shadow is cold and unknowable, a challenging trait for a show’s protagonist.
Still, even if I weren’t assigned to watch more, I would, if only for the character work of the likes of Gilpin, Schreiber, and McShane. Gilpin in her shortly lived role is quintessential Fuller humor, bittersweet and hysterical. Schreiber clearly relishes every line, coin trick and wild punch as Mad Sweeney, making the red-haired ruffian look work for him! McShane is, as ever, a delicious delight as an eyebrow arcing, smart-tongued schemer, and the trailer debuted after the ep promises compelling character work from Kristin Chenoweth, Peter Stormare, Cloris Leachman, Crispin Glover and Emily Browning. So, even if its introduction is more than a little confounding, “American Gods” will likely lure audiences back each Sunday with its intriguing iconoclasm and heady mix of sex and death. But this viewer will be praying for some more concrete plot to carry episode two.
“American Gods” premieres on April 30 on Starz.