tv review

American Gods Is a Bizarre, Dazzling Show

Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday, Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon. Photo: James Dimmock/Starz

American Gods is one of the strangest series ever to air on American television. I say that with the authority of a critic who put Hannibal, the last series from American Gods co-producer Bryan Fuller, in the number-one spot on his top-ten list two years running. Hannibal was an aggressively strange show: bloody, perverse, and intellectually playful, and more interested in dreamlike atmosphere and imagery than in traditional storytelling. The influence of three Davids — Lynch, Fincher, and Cronenberg — was always apparent, and there were times, especially in season three, when Hannibal got as close to abstraction as a series with a plot and characters could get. As a piece of storytelling, American Gods makes Hannibal look like The Andy Griffith Show.

The pilot starts with a prologue about a band of Norse explorers making landfall in the Americas and suffering horribly, turning, in desperation, to supernatural forces that seem to ignore them. The first four episodes all have prologues like this: little self-contained stories about the relationship between humans and gods, or prayers and actions, that are thematically adjacent to the main show but exactly a part of it. They’re parables attached to a show which itself has the feel of a parable.

The main series takes its sweet time introducing its main character, Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle of The 100), a man who gets released from prison at the same time that he learns his wife Laura (Emily Browning) has died in a car wreck. In time, Shadow Moon will fall into the orbit of Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), a rascally con man who waxes philosophical about everything under the sun (a perfect role for McShane).

The show then becomes a picaresque narrative, and at times a straight-up road movie, with Mr. Wednesday and Shadow Moon crisscrossing the United States in a big, old American car, contacting various supernatural figures and having conversations with them. These include a trio of sisters with supernatural powers, separated by decades of age and led by Zorya Vechernyaya (90-year-old Cloris Leachman); Czernobog (Peter Stormare), Zorya’s roommate, a chain-smoking slaughterhouse worker who’s nostalgic for the days when he used to kill livestock with a sledgehammer; Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), a belligerent Irishman who challenges Shadow Moon to a fistfight; and a seductive woman (Hannibal alum Gillian Anderson) who appears to Shadow from a bank of TVs in a superstore in black and white, in the guise of Lucille Ball.

I’m not sure how much else I want to tell you about the plot — and not because surprise is essential to American Gods. This series, which is adapted by Fuller and Michael Green (co-screenwriter of Logan) from Neil Gaiman’s popular novel, will probably have a Game of Thrones–type viewership, mixing newbies with a large percentage of viewers who know everything that’s going to happen already and are just watching to see how the show will dramatize things.

More to the point, this does not strike me as a series that cares very much about the “whoa!” factor. I haven’t read Gaiman’s book and studiously avoided descriptions of it, because I wanted to come to the show with virgin eyes and ears. As a result, I didn’t experience any of the revelations, which feel incidental and sly, as anything other than accessories to the show’s unique aesthetic, which is all about what’s happening in the moment. Fuller and Green and their directors — Hannibal veteran David Slade, in particular — structure every episode so that it feels like a bunch of loosely connected short stories with recurring characters. Some have preexisting relationships with each other (like Mr. Wednesday and Mad Sweeney), while others just seem to mysteriously appear in the story, like cameo players. The most striking of the latter is Orlando Jones’s dandyish Mr. Nancy, who’s at the center of the second episode’s prologue, speaking to slaves shackled in the belly of a ship in the 17th century. (Skip the next paragraph if you don’t want to know what’s really going on.)

We soon learn that we’re witnessing the first stirrings of a war between the old gods — including Odin, Mr. Wednesday’s real identity, and Jesus, who shows up in a later episode in the guise of Jeremy Davies — and the new gods of technology, industry, and commerce. (Anderson’s character, Media, is one of the new gods.) Mr. Wednesday’s goal is to get the old gang back together to battle the new gods for control of the universe and reassert their supremacy. The premise of the novel is that gods actually do exist, but only because people believe in them; because belief in the old gods is on the wane — human thoughts being preoccupied by technology and electronic images — the old gods themselves are also on the wane.

Despite the momentous stakes, none of the characters on American Gods seem particularly obsessed with the fate of humankind and the universe, and the show doesn’t seem obsessed with it, either. It treats the premise as an excuse to serve up eccentric characters engaged in conversation or delivering very long, Tarantino-esque monologues. (Czernobog’s description of the old days at the slaughterhouse is a horrendous standout.) Every now and then, you get a burst of action that would seem unspeakably brutal if the show didn’t abstract the blood and gore to the point where you feel like you’re looking at a self-aware gallery exhibition. There’s a moment in a fourth-episode fight where a supernaturally powerful combatant kicks a man in the crotch and splits him in half vertically, so that his skull and spine fly up into the air; the image is so ridiculous that I laughed at it, and I’m fairly sure I was supposed to.

There are also a number of extended sex scenes, one involving a genie and a salesman, that are much more emotionally intense than anything in Starz’s Spartacus franchise. The show’s aesthetic puts you in the moment — in the middle of the action, as it were — rather than giving you a safe distance by dicing the encounter into a montage of gorgeously toned bodies. When it comes to nudity, Fuller is an equal-opportunity showman: Yetide Badaki’s sex goddess Bilquis goes full-frontal with a variety of partners (including Joel Murray, a.k.a. Mad Men’s Freddy Rumsen, of all people), but the show is much more of a showcase for the male physique. In fact, it might be the first commercial drama to feature a penis (often erect) in every episode. Why that isn’t a pledge to viewers in ads is beyond me.

Given Fuller’s increasingly voluptuous and polymorphous sense of spectacle over the years, this seems all of a piece. There were scenes in Hannibal’s second and third seasons that made blood, food, and unclothed bodies seem like alternating courses in the same never-ending feast. The close-ups of Hannibal Lecter’s culinary creations, his handwork as a killer, and his rivals’ gruesome gallery installations built of human bodies were all lit and shot in ways that stylized them and made them seem like parts of the same continuum. That’s the case here, too. Close-ups of poker chips, quarters, gold coins, blood, severed limbs, goulash, hardboiled eggs, dandelion stems, and rain-soaked earth are gorgeous on their own terms, but they feel like propositions as well as images — attempts to articulate a worldview that cannot be fully explained with words.

There’s also the possibility that Fuller, Green, and company don’t have anything to say, but are having a great time saying it anyway. Just as humans have to take a leap of faith to believe in the unseen and unverifiable, so, too, do viewers of American Gods have to decide to believe that the show is leading somewhere that will justify the time spent watching it and wondering what in the ever-loving hell is going on. There are points when the whole series seems to take its cues from Mr. Wednesday, who tells Shadow, “You can’t weave the stories that are necessary for belief unless you have a personality.” Mr. Wednesday is a god, but he is also a con man.

After watching the first four episodes, I can say that I don’t love American Gods the way I loved Hannibal. This is partly because Hannibal, for all its cool bloodletting and prankish humor, was a much warmer series — no doubt because of the physically unconsummated love between Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal and Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham. The relationship between those two characters and the individual cases they investigated served as through lines connecting all the blowout scenes of horror, violence, and seduction. American Gods is deliberately disjointed, like tracks on an album. There are times when the show seems more interested in parsing ephemeral moments in the here-and-now than contemplating the big issues. The more beguiling moments involve bits of what might be called barroom philosophy, such as Shadow Moon saying that “all the best drinks have self-defining names,” or Media lamenting people’s increasing inability to concentrate on one thing at a time. “They hold a smaller screen in their laps or in the palm of their hands so they don’t get bored watching the big one,” she says. Watch American Gods on a big screen, if possible, and turn the small ones off.

American Gods Is a Bizarre, Dazzling Show