Starz’s American Gods television series feels a lot like a gritty reboot of the book — which is weird, because the source material is already pretty grimy on its own. Surreal, campy, and sprawling, this pilot teases out the original novel’s look and feel, but loses some of its heart in the process.
First and foremost, the American Gods TV show strives to stay true to the original material — to the point where nearly every line basically beats you over the head with Foreshadowing. “Hey, if you didn’t already know, some Horrifying Norse Myth Shit will probably happen to Shadow,” the show screams, and then throws a pile of nooses at him. It’s all just Too Much, even for an adaptation of a Neil Gaiman property…and I’m probably still going to watch every single episode the day they come out.
For the uninitiated, American Gods is based on the 2001 Neil Gaiman novel of the same name. The story follows Shadow Moon, an ex-convict who joins up with the mysterious, shadowy Mr. Wednesday.
Everything below this picture of Wednesday may contain spoilers for those of you who haven’t read the American Gods book.
Episode One: The Bone Orchard opens with a credits sequence that poses the question, “What if we took all of this religious iconography to a rave?” This sequence strikes me as what the inside of Neil Gaiman’s head probably looks like.
After a brief interlude with the Capital One vikings, we follow Shadow (Ricky Whittle), as he strives to reach his wife Laura’s (Emily Browning) funeral. He meets Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), a con man who drops extremely foreboding lines and all but waggles his eyebrows at the camera after each one. McShane chews through the scenery, spits it out, and eats it again, like an overfed cat with no impulse control. “It’s…… ~*~*~*~ my day ~*~*~*~*~” he cackles, staring into the camera and right through your soul. I have to admit, I love a good ominous cackle.
As Shadow continues his desperate attempt to see his wife interred, we meet a charming cast of characters along the way: Ironically Tall Leprechaun; Bilquis, Goddess of the Abundant Nature’s (Front) Pocket; Kindly Barkeep Who Makes Good Chili; A Buffalo With Flames For Eyes Who Tells Shadow to ~”Believe”~ (aka Neil Gaiman cameo, I mean, it has to be).
Let it be stated that Kindly Barkeep Who Makes Good Chili looks knowingly at the camera like she’s getting another speaking role. Fingers crossed, fam.
Speaking of Bilquis — this adaptation’s worst offense is that I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS SHOW MADE ME FEEL SORRY FOR THE DUDE WHO GETS SWALLOWED BY A VAGINA. Fuck you, show! Swallowing a man whole with one’s vagina is an integral part of My Brand.
As it turns out, Laura died while giving Shadow’s best friend Robbie road head (barf, but it’s also in the book so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯) — as Robbie’s wife Audrey reveals literally in the church, bc: Irreverence. Audrey is perhaps the second greatest part of this episode, right after Kindly Barkeep. Betty Gilpin spits acid with every line, drunkenly scream-whispering necessary exposition along the way. Not excellent: the excruciating scene where Audrey drunkenly propositions Shadow in the graveyard to “get back at” their dead spouses. She also drops nasty hints that lead me to believe we’ll suffer through zombie weiners in some future episode, which, like, fucking c o o l (no thx).
Then the gates of hell open up and the worst Millennial ever conceived by marketing professionals is extremely insufferable at Shadow for the final few moments of the episode. When the American Gods book was released in 2001, this character represented the internet of the time — which, back then, manifested as a rude, spoiled husky dude with a smug attitude. But Hipster Tech Bro Internet Guy — sorry, Technical Boy — feels a lot less resonant with What’s Wrong With The Internet Today than it probably did in the pre 2016 Election world. Like, come on, couldn’t yall hook us up with Diet Pepe or something? Even Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale paid homage to bootleg Guy Fawkes masks in its flashback sequences. Technical Boy seems ripped from a meme on a conservative grandpa’s Facebook wall — less terrifying, but more aggravating.
Thinking back, I guess I always imagined that an American Gods television series would have the same vibe as the one I always imagine that Twin Peaks has (because I know; I’m Trash; I have only watched one episode and spent the whole time anxious about whether or not I was Getting It but isn’t that the point of Twin Peaks? Someone please tell me because I don’t know). This show feels a lot more like Zack Snyder’s Watchmen — a creation that faithfully recreates the source material’s most problematic elements for shock value without spending time fleshing out the subtler yet more rewarding parts of the original text.
I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about Ricky Whittle’s Shadow. Book Shadow is humble, unflappable, and thoughtful, easily turning many enemies into friends with his patience and fortitude. These attributes are the greatest assets he brings to Wednesday’s cause. Whittle’s Shadow feels like a man very understandably struggling with his anger and grief; he vents his frustrations more easily than Book Shadow, struggling to avoid losing his composure when faced with the “bitches at the airport,” Audrey, and really everyone else who talks to him in this episode. However, we’ve only got one episode to work with right now, and Whittle’s Shadow reacts to his circumstances more like a regular human being than the almost supernaturally (lol) patient Book Shadow. It’s a bit hard to compare at this point.
It also feels weird that in this, the Year Of Our Lord [Satan] 2017, the American Gods team decided to really go to town with that noose imagery. Shadow finds himself on or near the business end of a noose multiple times within the episode. Yes, yes, I know; Norse gods; gallows iconography; but come on, my dudes. All of these scenes have been inserted just for the TV show (I checked!!!!), which would already be heavy-handed enough, even if it wasn’t also Deeply Unsettling for obvious contextual reasons.
And those heavy-handed metaphors really hinder American Gods’s ability to resonate. Every other character drops an allusion to mythical elements that fans know will show up later, or to events that will unfold within the span of a few more episodes. “I feel like there’s an ax hangin’ over my head.” “Waiting for the sky to fall’s gonna cause you more trouble — which it won’t.” “It’s not every day a man gets to bury his wife.” I half-expect the next episode to end with Wednesday turning to Shadow, eyebrows a-wagglin’, saying “Let’s go find some ~~~AMERICAN GODS~~~~” [music swells, credits roll]. I would appreciate 60% less Saying The Thing, please.
And look. I really want to get excited about this show. I’ve been waiting for it since 2011. I own two copies of the book — one signed! — and the full cast audiobook. American Gods is one of my #1 Problematic Faves. Here’s hoping that this show will find its footing in the episodes to come — if for no other reason than to reintroduce Diner Owner Who Makes Good Chili, the one true beating heart of this pilot.