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.
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?
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.