Gillian Anderson as Media.
The last half-hour of the season-one finale of Bryan Fuller’s latest series American Gods, about old and new deities fighting for humanity’s allegiance, is so delightful that it made me unreservedly love it, rather than finding it, to quote Ian McShane’s Mr. Wednesday, “confused but intrigued,” which was my default landing place throughout much of its run. (No, I haven’t read Neil Gaiman’s source novel, and I have no plans to; adaptations have to stand on their own.) It’s not that this Starz blockbuster lacks for moments of terror, beauty, and wit. Its long, self-contained, theatrically shaped scenes are a welcome antidote to the exposition-packed trailers-for-themselves that dominate a lot of TV drama, and the show is so visually, sonically, and musically self-indulgent that its excesses are often funny and sometimes inspired. Why just show an ice-cream truck crashing and killing Emily Browning’s Laura Moon a second time when you can suspend the moment with super-slow-motion and show Moon and her travel companion Mad Sweeney the leprechaun (Pablo Schreiber) and a bunch of ice-cream treats spinning inside the truck as if locked in the space capsule from Apollo 13, then have Laura float through the shattered window (glass fragments pulverized into sharp raindrops), then fixate on Mad Sweeney’s coin as it tumbles from her reopened chest cavity? American Gods is one of those shows where you expect (and learn to want) the most bombastically elaborate solution to every dramatic problem, and feel a bit cheated when the show doesn’t give it to you.
And in a year of hyperstylized, slow-burn storytelling that has also included Twin Peaks: The Return, Legion, and The Leftovers, American Gods stands tall. It practices what a friend, defending Howard Hawks’s pokey late-period movies, called, “we’ll get there when we get there” storytelling. This series didn’t run or walk; it moseyed like old John Wayne. After episode five, when things finally started to cook, it digressed into two flashback-heavy episodes that deepened the backstory/mythology of Laura and Mad Sweeney, then regrouped in the end for a grand gathering at the country estate of Easter (Kristin Chenoweth).
As written by Bekah Brunstetter, Michael Green, and Fuller, and as directed by Italian photographer and filmmaker Floria Sigismondi, the finale was a parade of tableaus but also of intimate moments of confrontation that filled out characters who had remained stubbornly enigmatic before. Fellini in ringmaster mode might have found it all a bit much. White bunnies pooped multicolored jelly beans. An assortment of Jesus Christs milled about, including one played by Jeremy Davies that sat lotus-style on the surface of an indoor swimming pool. A glitchy incarnation of Crispin Glover’s Mr. World appeared amid a chorus of faceless dancers in top hats and tails. Ian McShane’s Mr. Wednesday finally revealed himself as Odin. Easter rejected Gillian Anderson’s media at an Easter party — the violet of her eyeshadow matching the violets in the garden behind her — and then lifted her hands to the sky and stole spring to compel prayers for its return. (The mix of lilting strings and warbling woodwinds in Brian Reitzell’s score evoked the prologue to Birth.) Meanwhile, the backstory of Yeltide Bedaki’s Bilquis was expanded in a series of scenes that took us from the sexually hedonistic 1970s through the AIDS-panicked ’80s and ’90s. The highlight was a 1978 dance club flashback that premiered a new Debbie Harry synth-disco song before degenerating into an invasion by gunmen. Ricky Whittle’s ex-convict Shadow Moon became a believer, finally — maybe not a satisfying enough button to wrap the mostly reactive first phase of his journey, but it’s something to build on.
I wonder: Did it annoy any non-readers of Gaiman’s novel that the first season ended up being a glorified prologue, not unlike the first seasons of other mythology driven fantasy and sci-fi shows, including Westworld and Legion? It annoyed me a little, honestly, even though the finale and several other long stretches of American Gods (including all of episode four, which told Laura’s side of the story of the Moon marriage’s decline) were remarkable, not just for the number of theoretically impossible things that they did well, but the emotional charge that comes from watching a TV series be that grandiose in the first place, even when certain gambles didn’t pay off. Let’s just say that I look forward to seeing the series look forward instead of backwards and sideways, though I certainly wouldn’t want them to lose those preambles, which are nearly always more surprising than the show proper.
A big drawback — for me if no one else — is the tone: it’s Tarantino and Sin City pulpy-jokey neo-noir, with posturing tough guys (and gals) keeping their philosophies foregrounded and their emotions in check. (Whittle’s Shadow was a conspicuous exception here, though. He has a great heartbroken-incredulous face, and on the basis of these eight episodes, he already qualifies for induction in the Macho Criers’ Hall of Fame, which includes Denzel Washington and Justin Theroux.) It’s not that Tarantino cool isn’t a valid mode, it’s that I don’t feel a burning desire to see Bryan Fuller’s version of it because it’s not his natural brand. There were quite a few moments where the series seemed to be doing a passable impression of a thing that it wasn’t naturally inclined to be. The most exciting performances — McShane, Chenoweth, Anderson, and Glover, in particular — tended to be the biggest.
McShane is the true soul of the series, playing Mr. Wednesday/Odin as a grandiloquent con man–mentor who seems aware that he’s a character in a story and figures that if he manipulates the other characters skillfully enough, he can wrest it away from the author. When you look into McShane’s face as he grins wickedly, I think you’re seeing the show that American Gods kept threatening to become, only to hold back at the last second. Fuller’s prior work, including Pushing Daisies and Hannibal, were notable for their fusion of mordant screwball comedy, wet-eyed sincerity, and operatic melodrama.
The volatility and bigness of the emotions showcased on a Fuller series, even one about FBI profilers and serial killers, is what has traditionally made them stand out from the competition — more so than the controlled excesses of the filmmaking, which can fascinate, too. The makers of film and television are still afraid to get in a Fuller-esque mode and stay in it for long, because nothing kills a series faster than public sneering, and nothing invites sneering like sincerity. To willfully ignore that risk automatically marks a series as one worth watching.
And that’s what we got periodically in American Gods: the old Fuller alchemy that put me in the tank for the guy, even when he’s making a busted reboot of The Munsters. The old Fuller alchemy kept me watching even though Gods’ comic-book neo-noir posturing was the least original thing about it. I lived through ’90s arthouse cinema and feel no need to see more images of loquacious criminals driving through pre–Interstate America landscapes in big old cars, not even when they’re surrounded by vastly more compelling quasi-historical flashbacks, and not even if the actors in said cars are as gifted as Pablo Schreiber, Emily Browning, Ricky Whittle, and Ian McShane, and they’re visiting the likes of Cloris Leachman, Corbin Bernsen, and Peter Stormare. The payoff was that exceptional Easter party sequence, but there were many other flashes of complete self-actualization, including the section devoted to Vulcan’s transformation of American gun-love into a self-destroying cult — a political essay told in pictures. “Every bullet fired in a crowded movie theater is a prayer in my name,” Vulcan says, “and it makes them want to pray harder.”
I stuck with Gods throughout eight purposefully fragmented episodes despite being on the fence about whether it was truly working as a TV show because Fuller and his writers and directors were high-wiring an aesthetic unlike any else on TV — something akin to a psychedelic orgy where religion, philosophy, and human progress are earnestly discussed between trysts. That’s a party I’ll gladly revisit.