Sunday, May 7, 2017

A Storm is Coming: Starz's American Gods

Ian McShane and Ricky Whittle in American Gods. (Photo: Jan Thijs/Starz Network)

Note: This piece contains spoilers for the first episode of Starz's American Gods. It was written before the airing of the show's second episode last night.

"The Universe is made of stories,
not of atoms."
- Muriel Rukeyser, "The Speed of Darkness" (1968)
"Without our stories we are incomplete."
– Neil Gaiman, from The View from the Cheap Seats
Shadow Moon is having a very bad week. When we meet the protagonist of Starz's American Gods, he has just been released from three years in prison (served for a crime he hasn't committed), only to find out that his wife and his best friend have been killed in a car accident, taking with them any promise of a return to normalcy. Even before arriving at the funeral and learning some of the more gruesome details of their deaths, he meets a mysterious man calling himself Mr. Wednesday, who offers him a job as a kind of bodyguard, errand boy, Man Friday (so to speak) – and things quickly go from weird to worse, as Shadow falls headlong in an epic battle between forces struggling for the souls of America.

Adapted from Neil Gaiman's award-winning 2001 novel, and developed for television by Michael Green (Kings) and Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies, Hannibal), the first episode of American Gods premiered last Saturday night – landing with a gritty and glorious bang. Gaudy and beautiful, messy and poetic, it steps headlong into a compelling vision of a vibrant and contradictory America made of big skies and flashy neon. In a different era, Gaiman's sprawling, ambitious novel would have definitely fallen into the "unadaptable" category. The story the book tells, though set in the narrative's present era, is broad, allegorical, and clearly too big for anything but a thinly told feature film that would probably be generously labelled as "inspired by." But when it comes to bringing to novels to the screen, television has dethroned film and small is the new big – and so the time of American Gods has finally come.

Though I confess I hadn't read it in over a dozen years, the 2001 novel has long been a favourite of mine. But as I skimmed through its opening pages in advance of the show's premiere, it turned out I had remembered little but the broad strokes of the book's suggestive operative conceit that the gods need our faith in them in order to exist. (I certainly did not recall how dark, bloody and often pornographic the novel is, which makes me wonder what my friends thought after I recommended it to them!) But Gaiman's effort, taking up the task of painting a dark, bloody portrait of American life by naming, personifying and giving flesh to the many gods that make up contemporary American cognitive dissonance, remains just as brilliant and dizzying as when I first read it.

As for the show's pilot, I was engrossed from the opening credits to the final bloody minutes. In between, the episode threw us unapologetically into its insane universe of jealous gods and bar fights. A word on those first minutes: the show's credit sequence is a work unto itself, as well as a powerful hint of the story to come. To pounding techno rhythms, we are offered a hallucinatory vision of contradictory icons and narratives melting one into the other as images of muscle cars and fast-food signs, crucified astronauts, maniacally smiling Buddhas and high-tech weaponry, centaurs and idols, culminate in a neon totem pole topped with a towering American eagle. (I do have one nitpick: is that supposed to be a menorah in those credits? Pro tip: a menorah – like the one lit in the pre-Destruction Temple – has seven candles, not nine. But, that said, a heartfelt Happy Hanukkah to you too, American Gods.) And then we jump immediately to 813 C.E. and meet a party of adventuring Vikings, washing up on a desolate, and windless, American shore, whom we watch for the next several minutes trying to force their god's one eye to look their way, across the vast ocean, with blood (so much blood) and screams if necessary. The result is that, even before we meet our main protagonists, the show's wider ambitions are plain. I haven't seen more than the first episode, but no doubt that teaser-style opening will reappear, providing unvarnished introductions to the many gods of America, painting episode by episode the messy and diverse multitudes that make up what stands for the American imaginary.

Ricky Whittle and Pablo Schreiber in American Gods.

The story then turns to the implausibly named Shadow Moon, played by English actor Ricky Whittle (Hollyoaks, The 100), soon to be released from prison but plagued by haunting dreams and sense of foreboding that quickly bears fruit. "Something feels weird," he tells his wife Laura (Emily Browning) over the phone. "The air feels constipated, like if it'd just push out a storm, it'd be okay." A stoic man of few unnecessary words, we quickly understand that he has survived imprisonment by sheer force of mind and will. With his shock and grief over his wife's death still undigested, he meets Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane of Deadwood), whose offer of a job drags him even closer to the eye of the storm that is brewing. McShane is – there is only one word for it – awesome. The English actor, once again adopting an American twang, brings just enough of Al Swearengen to his delivery to call up bygone eras (and bygone television), but never for a second distracts – giving the world-weary Wednesday a kind of eye-twinkling charm that in a single sentence makes the novel's ostensibly main character a pale shadow. Wednesday is never entirely likable, of course (as Shadow tells him, "You're a little creepy, and you're forward and familiar, and I don't like it"), but when McShane's in a scene, it is his.

The show is also, as my Critics At Large colleague Justin Cummings reported to me the other night, lurid. (At the time, Justin didn't offer much more than that, but he said it with a curious smile… so I'm going to infer he meant it as a positive.) Some of this episode comes right off the novel's pages, like the pilot's memorable introduction of the goddess Bilquis (portrayed with ferocious glee by Yetide Badaki), and some of it is pointedly the creation of the television writers, like Audrey (Nurse Jackie's Betty Gilpin), the betrayed friend of Shadow's wife Laura, with her memorable graveside proposition. In the latter instance, it is hard to deny that, for all its obscenity, that scene adds up to a more sympathetic portrait of Audrey than in the book. (The story in HBO's True Blood eventually lost its struggle against the lurid. The first hour of American Gods has its share of bloodletting and sex, but it bodes well that it also has Shadow pointedly resist just such allure.) Still, luridness aside, the pilot does come with a bit of a women problem, with all its substantial female characters given almost exclusively sexualized roles (arguably, Bilquis embodies a decidedly empowered version). But going forward, I suspect the series is prepared for course correction on this point, since we know that the likes of Gillian Anderson, Cloris Leachman, and Bryan Fuller and Broadway favourite Kristin Chenoweth are yet to come.

But an amazing cast and great writing aside, the real reason I cannot wait to watch the next episode of American Gods is that it fires my imagination. Its basic premise, that our stories matter – the ones we tell and the ones we've stopped telling – appeals to me in a fundamental way. The show harvests the deep, inexhaustible well of human stories to create something new and rich and purposely contemporary. (With its re-telling of Norse mythology, and unbridled sense of Kiwi fun, The Almighty Johnsons has paved the way for American Gods – even ultimately toying with the uncomfortable juxtaposition of Old and New World deities. Something similar was achieved by last summer's Cleverman, a New Zealand/Australian co-production that mined Australian Aboriginal myth to create an epic, and contemporary, fantasy tale.) Gaiman's 2001 hypothesis that "America" is not only a stew made of many nations and ethnicities, but also of multiple (and contradictory) belief systems, myths and narratives – all essentially at the whim of dominant narratives of the current era, those "new" gods that our era submits itself to (be it money, celebrity, technology) – has frankly never seemed more evident, or more worth investigating.

If the first episode tells us anything, it's this: there is nothing more dangerous than a half-believed-in god. And, I anticipate, few things as interesting.

American Gods airs on Starz on Saturday nights. Its second episode aired last night, and its 8-episode first season continues next Saturday, May 13.

– Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics at Large since 2010.

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