Forgive me, Constant Reader, but I am still somewhat hungover from my Eisner Awardsweekend. As evidence, I tell you that I have the new issue of one of my favorite titles, Bitch Planet, in my apartment, but I have not yet read it.
(I may read it during the course of writing this, because I plan to have lunch today. Stay tuned.)
My colleagues in this space, Emily Whitten and Mindy Newell, have already written about the great cast and the tight scripting. I want to talk about some aspects of the show that are more ephemeral.
I haven’t read American Gods since it was published in 2001, but I remember being knocked out by it. The story of a war was not that unusual, but the fighters were, battles between the old gods (from Europe and Asia and Africa, like Odin and Anansi and Star) and the new gods (technology, media, celebrity). I mean, I already loved Neil, both as a person and as a writer, and his previous novel, Neverwhere, had been fun, but I thought American Gods was a great leap forward. It had an empathy towards its characters that I found to be much more personal and nuanced than the previous book. In fact, I considered it to be downright politically radical.
All these years later, my memories of the story have faded. There are some vivid images, notably a vignette in a taxi cab, but I don’t remember a lot about the plot or the characters. I am old. I have a lot of characters already in my brain, and I try to prioritize remembering the ones in real life.
I was excited to sit down with my brand-new subscription to the Starz channel on Sunday night, a bit nervous because the early reviews I’d read all talked about how violent the series was. Sure enough, the opening scene looked like it had been dipped in henna. And yet, it didn’t give me the icks. Later, there was not only more blood, but walks through a forest filled with skulls, threatening skies and ominous, discordant music.
It wasn’t scary. It was quite lovely. And even though he hadn’t had anything to do with it (that I know about), it seemed like Dave McKean might have influenced the production design, at least for those scenes. They shared his sense of chaotic beauty.
The acting is terrific, and the casting superb. My foggy memories of the characters flash a bit, but I think I would relate to them just as much without reading the book. Even in the most dire circumstances, the actors seem to be having a great time, especially Ian McShane.
American Gods remains a political fable, albeit perhaps a different one than I read in 2001. My sympathies in the war among the gods remains with the older deities, although my mistrust of the whole lot of them is still strong. In this time, unlike the turn on the century, the war is also played out between the cities and the small towns, the coasts and the flat fly-over country. When there is a fight in a bar in the first episode, I have no doubt that the humans who watch are Trump voters.
Do I think that the old gods are Republicans and the new gods are Democrats? Hell, no. Neither do I think their worshippers divide up quite so simply. I think there are plenty of rural folks who love celebrities and smart phones. I think lots of urban hipsters would drink mead if it was offered. And I think all too many of us, no matter where we live or what we believe, would spill blood to get what we want.
This has been my first week with Starz. When I called my cable company to add it, I specifically told them I wanted it for American Gods. I see that they also have the new Ghostbusters. So I can have my Neil fix and Kate McKinnon without having to find the remote. That’s one less sacrifice to the tech gods.
The Starz adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s award-winning novel American Gods is finally here, and having seen the first four episodes, I can tell you that, like Mad Sweeney in a bar fight, I am all in.
For those who haven’t read Gaiman’s novel, first published in 2001, it and the Starz adaptation featured are centered around an impending battle between two types of American gods – the “old gods” who crossed the seas from other countries with the immigrants who believed in them, and the “new gods” of technology, celebrity, drugs, and mass media that have gained in followers as belief in the old ways of life waned. The conflict is seen through the eyes of Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), a recently released convict who finds himself at loose ends after his old life falls apart, and becomes the personal assistant of the mysterious and charming Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane). Shadow’s adventures with Wednesday as they travel the country meeting Wednesday’s mysterious associates and gathering them for the coming war drives the plot as both the viewer and Shadow learn more about who Wednesday is and what he is up to.
In the beginning of the TV series, the story unfolds gradually because we are seeing it as Shadow experiences it. It mixes vivid dream sequences with Shadow’s quiet awe at experiencing vast expanses of scenery after his imprisoned life, but also with Wednesday’s more lively banter, which pulls Shadow out of himself. The style is decompressed and may require patience early on from those unfamiliar with the book, but it also allows you to really sink into the richly detailed storytelling that Gaiman does so well and that the production crew has brought to life.
These specifics serve to make this work of fantasy fiction feel oddly real – like this could certainly happen, if not to us, then at least to some other person somewhere. The first two episodes are a slow build, but as the pieces begin to slot in place for both Shadow and the audience, the pace quickens – as the weirdness Shadow is experiencing stacks up, and Shadow starts to accept that the world is not what he believed it to be. It’s possible that the introductory episodes may be a bit confusing for those who haven’t read the book, as a pantheon of characters is introduced pretty early on, sometimes only with hints about what gods or goddesses they portray; but I think that patience will pay off as things coalesce by episodes three and four.
After all, this is a show that, eventually, has everything – mystery, humor, weirdness, raw emotion, sex (and it’s varied and not censored, so be advised), creepy chills, heists and cons, immense sadness, over-the-top violence, angst, and the feel that we are simultaneously in the midst of an epic story, a small-town American experience, and a backwards buddy cop movie (given neither Shadow nor Wednesday is an entirely upstanding citizen). The show, like the novel, can be raw and pulls no punches and has some moments of epic melodrama (but hey – so do the gods themselves). It reflects harsh truths and ugly realities, and isn’t afraid to show the grimier, less beautiful side of humanity.
Yet already in four episodes there have also been several immensely beautiful and oddly peaceful scenes – and the way they fit together into the broader fabric of the story comes directly from Gaiman’s writing. His ability to meld humor and horror is also not lost in the screen adaptation, and viewers will experience an odd sense of fun even in the midst of dark happenings. Wednesday’s constant unpredictable behaviors, for example, bring to mind a crazy old grandpa, who messes with Shadow even in the middle of a bank heist because he gets a kick out of keeping him on his toes. And a scene where Shadow’s wife Laura Moon (Emily Browning) is reunited with her former best friend Audrey Burton (Betty Gilpin) is incredibly dark and pretty gross, but also absolutely hilarious in its absurdity.
Another striking thing about this show is how relevant the novel’s themes, as brought forward into this iteration, remain. The show addresses racism, cheating spouses, death, religious beliefs, sexuality and homosexuality, and more as the story unfolds. And at its heart, it addresses where we choose to put our faith, and the clash between traditions and values new and old. There is no question that, as when Gaiman wrote the novel, we still struggle with the conflicting pulls of living an authentic life while also being enmeshed in the sometimes overwhelming and disconnecting communications of modern media. And it is apparent in today’s political climate that America still struggles to reconcile varying and conflicting cultural beliefs with what this country is supposed to represent in democracy and equality. As Mr. Wednesday astutely notes, “[America] is the only country in the world that wonders what it is.”
For would-be viewers who are fans of the book, there is no question what this show is – it’s the best kind of adaptation. It’s deliciously satisfying to see the story we know so well come to life, remaining faithful to the narrative and the characters while keeping any adjustments that might need to be made for the transition to television from changing the dynamic or intention of the original. For example, episode four delves into the backstory of Shadow and Laura, and changes and additions are certainly made; but at the same time, that episode is so well-scripted and evocative, and fits so well with the earlier episodes, that it may be my favorite episode so far. In addition, the show is laden with details and chunks of dialogue, both large and small, that come directly from the novel and have been worked seamlessly into the screen version.
While keeping close to the details of the original, the stunning cinematography, effects, and music of the show are also exactly what’s needed to evoke the feel of Gaiman’s book. When Bryan Fuller and David Slade were first announced as two of the executive producers on American Gods, I began having high hopes for it, as their recent work together, Hannibal, had a uniquely creepy, dreamy, mysterious feel which lent a strange, unreal beauty to even the horror elements of grisly scenes. Given the variety of weird, mysterious, and surreal happenings that unfold for Shadow as he begins to realize that all is not what he thought, I knew a similar vision from these creators (along with Michael Green and others) could be a good fit for this story, and wondered if there even was anyone else who could successfully bring Gaiman’s vision to life.
And come to life it does in these first episodes. American Gods, both book and show, begins with a tangible atmosphere of foreboding. Shadow feels it as he waits to be released from prison; and viewers feel it through the clever use of techniques such as extreme attention to small details, as well as time lapse and then slow-motion videography; along with an excellently moody soundtrack that is mostly wordless and full of strange and unsettling notes. The depth and style of the soundtrack so far, while unique, also struck a familiar note (hah!) for me, which is unsurprising, given that Brian Reitzell, who is responsible for the music, was also responsible for the Hannibal soundtrack (which I discussed with him at SDCC 2013) and Fuller has spoken highly of his work. When the soundtrack does include popular songs, they are an exceptional fit for the scenes. For example, Lead Belly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night and Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall are both disquieting and in keeping with the small-town America feel that pervades the much broader, epic and wide-reaching story Gaiman is telling. And the use of Garbage’s Stupid Girl over a montage showing Shadow’s wife Laura’s dissatisfaction with her circumstances is brilliant.
The actors cast for the main roles are also brilliant, and embody Gaiman’s characters to a T. Whittle and McShane do a lot of heavy lifting as Shadow and Wednesday, playing perfectly off of each other as the quiet, distrustful ex-con and the sharp but slightly shady con-man who is more than he appears. Pablo Schreiber as Mad Sweeney, a nearly-seven-foot-tall leprechaun, is a delight to watch as he chews the scenery portraying the craziness of that character, who absolutely needs that larger-than-life energy to work. Yetide Badaki as Bilquis is introduced through what was probably one of the weirdest scenes in the novel and, I’d imagine, one of the hardest to shoot in the show. It’s super trippy, and doesn’t stint on the nudity, either – but Badaki handles it gracefully, making what could be a jarringly unreal scene seem intimate and acceptable.
Emily Browning masterfully portrays the flawed and fairly unlikeable Laura Moon in such a way that you at least appreciate how she remains her own person in a way that’s not necessarily nice but is very human. Betty Gilpin is fantastic as the distraught but also angry and snarky Audrey, trying to pick up the pieces after her world is shattered. Jonathan Tucker brings Low Key Lyesmith to life with sly, worldly humor in exactly the way I’d picture, and I can’t wait to see more from him. Bruce Langley as Technical Boy is appropriately off-putting, smarmy, and impersonal even as he’s being nasty. Orlando Jones as Mr. Nancy is harsh and in-your-face, with a rhythmic showmanship that is perfect for his role. Gillian Anderson as Media is both seductive and disconcertingly hollow. And Peter Stormare is absolutely perfect as Czernobog, evincing a sense of brutality and darkness even as he embodies his current role as a diminished god who once relished his work in the Chicago slaughterhouses.
Even as a fan of the book, I acknowledge that the first episode was slightly slow going as the drama began to unfold; but it still drew me in – and now that I’ve finished episode four, I’m no longer wondering whether this series is going to keep me hooked. The cast, the drama, the visuals, and the storytelling have all drawn me in, and I definitely want to see more.
And you can too, since the first episode of American Gods is airing on Starz right now!
So check it out, and until next time, Servo Lectio!
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