“Do you believe in a god?”
This question has been central to human existence since our genesis. We have never lived in a time without gods influencing a part of our world and shaping how its citizens conduct their day-to-day lives. From Anu to Allah, Zeus to Jupiter, Shango to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, they are unavoidable; coursing through history as well as the present day. Even as an atheist living in what is considered to be a growingly agnostic era, some of the fundamental laws that are used to govern us owe originated in religious teachings; supposedly God’s word being enforced by governments who may no longer believe that Ze exists. Even then, with the rise of television, social media, technology, don’t we just find ourselves praying at different alters, visiting new temples and treasuring 3G-enhanced sacred instruments?
As you may suspect, belief and gods are central to Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s tv adaption of Neil Gaiman’s magnum opus, American Gods – a novel which is still sitting on my bookshelf, gasping to be read. And the dichotomy between what is new and what is old is certainly crucial to the season’s ‘message’.
The synopsis issued to us via the creators, however, is rather deceptive. It reads:
After being released from prison early due to the death of his wife, Ex-con Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) becomes a bodyguard for Mr Wednesday (Ian McShane), who is actually a mythological god journeying across America to assemble an army to battle the new gods (Gillian Anderson, Crispen Glover and Bruce Langley).
Now apart from a celestial cold-war, this summary seems rather rudimentary: our protagonist’s equilibrium is broken by a mysterious newcomer, and must take part in a conflict, which will cause him to encounter even more interesting characters, culminating in a realisation that he is more important than he believes. It screams a simple road trip scenario with a theological twist. Yet, what viewers soon realise with American Gods is that rather than jumping in the fast lane, this is a show that wants you to sit back, put on the cruise control and listen to endless tales of the vast American highway; rather than flying United Airlines – and literally being dragged from our seats – we are travelling in a beautifully crafted wagon decorated with intricate carvings, all unique vignettes, and drawn by the most expensive stallions.
And style, let me tell ye of little faith, is of the upmost importance to a show like American Gods. Veterans of Fuller’s previous television ventures will know this: from the viscerally fairy-tale vibrancy of Pushing Daises, to the incredibly epic and gorgeous Hannibal – the only show in which cannibalism met Michelin star cuisine – Fuller is obsessed with his show’s aesthetic appeal. Similarly, his new series follows the same trend. Returning director David Slade, who worked wonders with Fuller on Hannibal, also deserves a mention. His direction combined with his showrunner’s eye for cinematography, is easily some of the most profound and rich artistry occurring on television today.
Unlike the aforementioned shows, however, American Gods is at times content with foregrounding style more so than, well, overarching substance. Hannibal – personally one of the best tv shows ever made – balances both style and plot, delivering both at a perfectly calculated rate. As I have been told, the original novel’s narrative often deviates into side stories, chapters in which we learn how certain gods came to America – a land which is depicted as a boiling pot for faith from around the world; a once blank canvas that Jackson Pollock has now spotted with hundreds of different beliefs. If that is the case, the show certainly remains unwaveringly true to this approach. The opening scene of the entire season follows this ‘Coming to America’ formula. We witness Vikings who get stranded on the coast of America, engage in a bloody brawl to gain the favour of one of their gods – though sadly there is no sight of Chris Hemsworth anywhere. These scenes dominate the show and in one particular episode a god-like character’s backstory takes precedence over Shadow and Wednesday’s journey – the central plot, which should be reaching its climax, is cast aside for one of these rich tales.
By calling these segments diversions or deviations somewhat connotes a sense of insignificance or, in other words, lesser importance surrounding these vignettes. This could not be further from the truth. They are engaging, touching, taboo breaking and important in building the show’s identity. The consequence is that the plot is naturally slowed and interspersed, which turns American Gods into an exercise of mood and atmosphere over, in this season at least, a focus on storytelling. This sets the show apart from what’s currently thriving: long form narrative tv, peppered with cliff-hangers, and ripe for binge-watching. And is naturally the most likely thing that will split viewers into two distinct categories: those enamoured with the show and those that hate its incredibly beautiful guts. Even though all episodes are now available to watch on Amazon Prime, I would still recommend taking at least a day, if not more, between each episode. Rather than being binged, American Gods should be meditated on; savoured over days, weeks even, not hours.
It would also be unfair to not mention the tremendous work of the cast. Along with McShane, stand outs include the shapeshifting Gillian Anderson, electrically zipping from David Bowie to Marylin Monroe, who plays the seemingly unstoppable Media and Emily Browning who play’s Shadow’s dead wife. However, my personal favourite is Pablo Schreiber’s performance as Mad Sweeny a six-foot plus leprechaun, who’s significance to the story gradually progresses from comic relief to something more intricate. Sadly, Whittle’s portrayal of Shadow lacks the magnetism expected of a conventional leading character or the subtleties of what is more appropriate to what his character is trying to achieve – the reluctant hero. This is not to say that he is bad, I am just not as invested in him as a character as I am some like Wednesday, or, even more secondary characters like Mad Sweeny.
In addition, the sooner that you realise that this season is about Shadow’s awakening as opposed to the fulfilment of Wednesday’s machinations, the more you will take from the narrative. As I had the mentality of the latter when I was watching the show, when the last episode concluded I checked to see whether that was seriously the season finale. Just a little recommendation.
Although the breath-taking visuals and uncompromising originality is great, things do need to change for season 2, as I suspect they will. Bryan Fuller has already announced that the next season will have ten episodes and a faster pace, things that are most certainly needed to ensure that the show delivers what it has painstakingly prophesied over its first 8 hours.
Time will tell. All we can do now, I suppose, is pray. But to which god, remains, as always, the crucial question.
3.5/5: Sadly, a lack of plot did leave me wanting more, and not in a good way. As you can see, I really want to give it more.
5/5 for potential.
15/5 for visual storytelling.