Starz’ adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods may make Game of Thrones blush, but does the heart of the original shine through its stylised action?
Showrunner: Bryan Fuller
Starring: Ricky Whittle, Emily Browning, Crispin Glover, Bruce Langley, Yetide Badaki, Pablo Schreiber, Ian McShane
Within half an hour of American Gods’ first episode – adapted for TV from Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel, and also released as a series of comics earlier this year – we’ve seen men porcupined with arrows, eyes poked out, and a significant amount of nudity. So far, so Game of Thrones. But even in Game of Thrones, it’s rare to see a sex scene that ends with the woman consuming her partner via her vagina.
Yes, fans of the book should be reassured that, far from toning down the its more bizarre content, showrunners Bryan Fuller (the man behind the Hannibal series) and Michael Green (writer of Logan and the upcoming Blade Runner sequel) take the concept and run with it. American Gods is a truly madcap oddity.
The show’s nominal star is Ricky Whittle, best known to British audiences from his time as a Hollyoaks hunk. He plays Shadow Moon, a convict released from prison only to discover his beloved wife Laura (Emily Browning) has died in a car accident. With nothing to return home to, he falls in with Ian McShane’s mysterious smooth-talking grifter, Mr Wednesday. Wednesday needs muscle, Shadow needs a job, and together they set out on an ultra-weird road-trip around America.
Wednesday, it turns out, ain’t your average con-man. Instead he’s a modern incarnation of the Norse god Odin, brought to America by Viking settlers. He’s just one of dozens, if not hundreds, of deities inhabiting the United States, most of them transported from the old world by each fresh new wave of immigrants. Sometimes these gods take multiple forms, depending on the believers: “You’ve got your white, Jesuit-style Jesus,” Wednesday tells Shadow at one point, “your Black African Jesus, your Mexican Jesus, and your swarthy Greek Jesus.”
Sacred icons change however, and like their immigrant worshippers the old gods find themselves forgotten and shoved to the margins of society, supplanted by the new gods of American life: the media, the internet, and the forces of homogenised globalisation. Wednesday, tired of obscurity, seeks to build an army to challenge the new gods, with Shadow along for the ride.
This adaptation is, for the most part, largely faithful to the source material. In particular, the book’s flashbacks to the arrival of the old gods in the New World make a welcome appearance here, including a rather groundbreaking gay love scene between an Omani salesman and a taxi-driving djinn that, admirably, has not been toned down for fear of offending conservative sensibilities.
Nonetheless Fuller and Green make a number of handy updates. Take the Technical Boy for example, a living personification of the internet. In the book he’s an overweight basement dweller, in line with the common stereotype of geeks and gamers around the turn of the millennium. The 2017 Technical Boy has had a makeover. He’s more like a young Silicon Valley tycoon or YouTube personality. Perfectly played by Bruce Langley, he’s brash and spoiled, sporting expensive kicks, and constantly sucking on a vape. He’s not the only returning character benefitting from technological upgrades: the goddess Bilquis now uses a dating app to locate new supplicants.
There are entirely new characters as well, the cleverest of which is Vulcan (Corbin Bernsen), the Roman god of fire, who’s managed to ingratiate himself into modern society by devoting himself to that most American of professions: the manufacture of weaponry.
Perhaps most significantly, and necessarily, Shadow is a bit more talkative this time around: he’s a deeply laconic character in the book in a way that wouldn’t really work on screen. Whittle proves a bit of a surprise find here. Clearly relishing the opportunity to prove he’s more than just a handsome face, he brings both an imposing physicality and a gift for comic timing to the role; he’s an effective audience stand-in, reacting to each new revelation with bemused wonder.
But this is really McShane’s show. A silver-tongued charmer positively dripping with insincerity, behind Wednesday’s eyes there lurks something menacing, an ever-present threat of impending violence. McShane is perfectly cast, bringing the same wit and venom to the role as he did to Deadwood’s Al Swearengen.
He heads a wonderful supporting cast. Making the most impression amongst the old gods are Pablo Schreiber’s cranky leprechaun Mad Sweeney (given a welcome expanded role from the book), Orlando Jones as the flamboyant storyteller Anansi, and Peter Stormare as a Slavic god of death who engages in a Seventh Seal-style game of checkers with Shadow.
Alongside Langley’s Technical Boy, Gillian Anderson is her usual wonderful self as Media, the new god of celebrity, who makes Shadow a Faustian offer of fame and fortune. Crispin Glover meanwhile is glorious and unsettling as Mr World, a shadowy operator managing the planet’s affairs from behind the scenes.
Not for nothing are all the new gods and their ilk, those whose hands hold the reins of power in modern-day America, white and wealthy and (mostly) male. Without ever making its point too forcefully, American Gods offers up the mixed-race Shadow, alongside the immigrant gods of the Old World, as a stark contrast; representatives of the diverse melting pot of American society, but excluded from its upper levels.
Those familiar with Hannibal will recognise Fuller’s hyper-stylish approach, replete with slow-motion scenes, lavish decorations and hyper-saturated colours. In truth, his style is something of an acquired taste, at times seeming rich and sumptuous, at others coming across as overly gaudy or pretentious. Do we really need so many close-up shots of a match being lit?
And while American Gods mostly makes the transition to TV with the book’s charm intact, occasionally the excess gets too much: a gratuitously ultra-violent early scene in which a group of evil henchmen are literally torn limb from limb is too cartoonishly gory to have an impact and adds little other than fountains of splashing blood.
Other issues are more minor. Whereas Gaiman’s novel – an insightful examination of immigration, loneliness, and love – is a genuinely moving love-letter to the American melting pot, this adaptation rarely hits the same level of deeper meaning. But it is early days yet – this first series’ eight episodes take us to a point roughly a third of the way through the book, and hopefully future series will further mine the novel’s rich emotional seam.
In the meantime American Gods is a creditably ambitious and mostly successful attempt to adapt some very tricky source material, one that should appeal to both Gaiman fanatics and newcomers alike. Its tale of brewing conflict and racial divides feels sadly topical in Trump’s America. American Gods is a rich, engaging, well-acted and occasionally perplexing tapestry, one that – mostly – stays just the right side of over-the-top. There’s potential for a truly great series to be built on this foundation – we just have to keep the faith.
Images courtesy of Starz TV.