Review: American Gods 1×1 (US: Starz; UK: Amazon)

No miracle

In the US: Sundays, 9pm E/P, Starz
In the UK: New episode available every Monday

By all rights, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is a novel I should have in some lovingly crafted Folio Society edition, situated in pride of place on my bookshelf or on a small shrine. Pagan gods? Check. American setting? Check. Neil Gaiman? Check and double check – after all, I spent most of my university days not just avidly reading Gaiman’s comic book works, particularly Sandman, but looking like its titular character, too. This is basically a photo of my sister and me in the early 90s.

Sandman and Death

Imagine the confusion and fear among knowing bystanders when we met up.

And yet, somehow, American Gods passed me by. I’ve not read it; I’ve not even listened to any of the audio books of it. I don’t even want to, despite very much enjoying Gaiman’s work on Doctor Who and his novel (co-authored with Terry Pratchett), Good Omens. Odd, hey?

A new TV show, though – one co-showrun by the marvellous Bryan Fuller (Heroes, Hannibal, Mockingbird Lane, Pushing Daisies)? Maybe that’s more my speed now?

So, sign me up, but don’t expect comparisons with the original, only answers to the thorny question of whether it’s a good TV show or not.

The story follows the fantastically named Shadow Moon (Hollyoaks’ Ricky Whittle), a con serving a three-year prison sentence who’s released days early when his wife is killed in a car accident. Trying his best to make his way home for her funeral, he encounters obstacle after obstacle, until he comes across conman ‘Mr Wednesday’ (Lovejoy‘s Ian McShane) and his luck mysteriously changes. Maybe that’s got something to do with the leprechaun (The Wire‘s Pablo Schreiber) he also meets. At least, he says he’s a leprechaun, but he’s mighty tall, so Moon has his doubts. Probably not because of the height, though.

Discovering his wife wasn’t quite who he thought she was, Moon is tempted by an offer of employment as Mr Wednesday’s ‘heavy’, but before he even starts, he’s discovering that Mr Wednesday has some very, very odd, very nasty, sometimes completely faceless enemies.

And that’s basically the plot of the first episode, which really isn’t that inspiring a piece of work. Not much happens other than establishing that Moon is rather similar to Luke Cage in terms of personality, if a bit less indestructible and without half the charm or catchphrases. There’s also little of the fantastical about it until the end, and what there is, largely doesn’t work, Schreiber’s leprechaun (who may be from Ireland. Or Russia) being an amalgam of stereotypes about Irish people being drunkards and fighters, rather than anyone liable to lead you to the end of any rainbow. I imagine that later episodes will be where we discover the rather important central conceit of the series that there’s a war between New Gods (such as technology) and Old Gods (such as Odin) being waged in America. That sounds more interesting, doesn’t it?

But there are some things that work. Ian McShane is obviously marvellous as the scheming Mr Wednesday (“Today’s my day” – gosh, I wonder who he might be), but what really lifts American Gods out of the ordinary – at least at this stage – is the mise-en-scène. Hovering here in roughly the same orbit as season 2 of Hannibal (ie not quite as perfect as season 1 but not as far up its own arse as season 3), American Gods does have some truly lovely and sometimes disturbing visuals, as well as the equally unsettling, jazzy dissonance of Brian Reitzell’s musical compositions. As it’s on Starz, there’s also quite a bit of the Spartacus gore along for the ride, too, with some blood tableaux that are often breathtaking.

Without those, there’d be little to mark out the show from any other piece of generic fantasy, though. There’s almost nothing of Gaiman or Fuller’s wit and wisdom in any of the dialogue and where it gets fantastical, it’s often in ways that make you scoff rather than wonder.

Gaiman says that a lot of the first episode is new but still in keeping with the book, so I’ll give the show the benefit of the doubt for now and hope it gets better in later episodes as they return to the original text. There’s also a top cast of guest gods due later on (Crispin Glover, Kristin Chenoweth, Peter Stormare, Gillian Anderson, Orlando Jones, Corbin Bernsen, Jeremy Davies), which should make that task a whole lot easier.

But this isn’t the way back into either Gaiman’s or Fuller’s works that I was expecting. Still, maybe we shouldn’t expect miracles.

  • Mark Carroll

    While I am tempted by Ian McShane and loved Sandman (also discovered as an undergraduate thanks to my college parent), American Gods wasn’t exactly one of my favorites, I think I’m content for now to see what you make of subsequent episodes.

    • Who isn’t tempted by Ian McShane?

      I met my college parent once. You did well!

  • JustStark

    I remember Colin Greenland reading from a manuscript copy of the first chapter at a room in I think Christ’s? Maybe Corpus? One of the ones on the east side of the street, anyway, shortly before its publication.

    On publication I got it and read the rest of it and… well, sadly, it is kind of what killed my enthusiasm for Gaiman, despite having been an avid reader of Sandman in my teenage years.

    Not because it was bad, you understand: just that it was pretty much the same stuff he’d been doing since forever: take abstract concepts / mythological figures / angels & demons / place names / etc, and make them into, you know, just regular people.

    It’s a cool trick, and definitely sustained Sandman and Neverwhere, but it is just one trick and reading American Gods I realised it was the only one he had, and I was fed up of it.

    I haven’t read any of his novels since, though they all seem mostly to be along the same theme; when he did a Doctor Who episode it was well, ‘What if the TARDIS were, like, a regular character?’ so you know I took that as confirmation he hadn’t changed.

    Anyway. Maybe I’ll watch this when I activate my Amazon Prime free trial, but to be honest, it’s not high up the list.

    • Thanks! I think you’ve put your finger on it. I think, probably, subconsciously that was why I didn’t bother – more of the same. Sandman was basically about gods (since the DC Universe effectively downgrades the gods it has into very powerful superheroes, the Endless were the installation of our kinds of gods into the DCU); Miracleman is gods again. So American Gods was more of the same, but without the artwork to really make it come alive.

      Plus the idea of personifications of modern Americana and ideas as new gods is basically The Corinthian et al.

      • JustStark

        I think Sandman is his magnum opus; it’s got personifications of everything, from abstract-ideas-as-gods (death, desire, etc etc) to actual mythical gods and creatures (Ishtar turns up, the furies, Thor’s in to make a double entendre, Cain & Abel, etc etc), angels & demons (most notably in the ‘Hell’ storyline), to modern ideas (the Corinthian is serial killers personified, the Hall stuff is basically a personification of the idea of superheroes, etc etc) and even places (the GK Chesterton-a-like).

        Everything else he’s done has just had some subset, plus Sandman varies so much in tone from storyline to storyline (and within them in the ones where they do a short story with a different artist each issue), that basically there was very little left for him to explore unless he went for some completely new ideas.

        He peaked early.

        • I think he also spent a bit of time in thrall to Alan Moore and became the Lesser Moore. Books of Magic was basically Moore’s Swamp Thing trek through discarded DC characters again; he was literally the after-party on Moore’s Miracleman, picking over the pieces of minor characters Moore had created rather than creating any of his own