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As fans of author Neil Gaiman know, it's almost impossible to fit his many works into specific genres, with most falling under the catch-all of "Imaginative fiction." Though it has been done, successful adaptations of his stories are exceedingly hard to pull off, and Starz was looking danger right in the eye when the network ordered up American Gods to series. Thankfully, and perhaps a little miraculously, Bryan Fuller and Michael Green's incredibly gorgeous American Gods is a profound and magical experience that is unlike anything else in TV history. This is storytelling at its most affecting.
There are many avenues by which to enter American Gods, and the series itself kicks off with a prologue of sorts, explaining the hidden history and mythology of pre-America as if Zack Snyder were directing an episode of Vikings. (Which I mean in the best possible way, sincerely.) Skip forward to the present, where viewers are introduced to the exquisitely named protagonist Shadow Moon, as played by The 100 vet Ricky Whittle, whose brood-heavy performance is fitting here. Days before his planned release from prison, Shadow gets out early over the tragic death of his wife Laura (Emily Browning). The fact that she died alongside her lover, who also happened to be her husband's best friend, certainly doesn't help Shadow properly deal with his readjustments back to outside life.
Not that Shadow's outside life can possibly resemble the one he knew before heading to jail. Everything changes with he meets Ian McShane's shrewd manipulator whose ad-libbed name, Mr. Wednesday, is merely a cover for his true identity as the Old God of knowledge, Odin. A being whose beguiling approach is often balanced by his archaic social etiquette, Mr. Wednesday has a daunting mission ahead of him that aims to bring a resurgence of attention back to his fellow Old Gods by waging a ware against the New Gods. To do this, he enlists Shadow as his bodyguard and driver to take him around the country in an attempt to round up as many of the powerful beings as he can.
In Mr. Wednesday's corner, at least somewhat, we have the chain-smoking god of darkness Czernobog, played with world-weary disdain by a filth-ridden Peter Stormare. There are the once-respected Zorya Sisters: the outspoken cosmos-watching guide Zorya Vechernyaya, played by Cloris Leachman; the quieter seeker of doom Zorya Utrennyaya, played by Martha Kelly; and the youngest and possibly least prophetic sister Zorya Polunochnaya, played by Erika Kaar. Orange is the New Black's Pablo Schreiber is excellent as the seemingly invincible drunkard Mad Sweeney, who always gets the short end of the stick. We're also introduced to the storytelling trickster god Mr. Nancy (or Anansi), brought to life with devilish glee by Orlando Jones. Not last and not least, we have Bilquis, the goddess of love who wishes to once again become a target of worship in others, and she has a particularly wicked way of making that happen.
Team New Gods is led by Crispin Glover's all-knowing and egotistical Mr. World, at least to the point where all of these cocky bastards can be led by someone. Perhaps the most interesting in the pack is Gillian Anderson's persuasion-minded goddess Media, who is able to take on different and interesting forms in order to sway people, and her introduction will be a hoot for fans of golden age television. Technical Boy, played with nerve-crushing aplomb by Bruce Langley, works as a stand-in for the Internet's most petulant side, and his bitchy need for attention and power doesn't make him an easily conquerable adversary.
All of those characters, and we barely touched upon Emily Browning's Laura, who doesn't get to enter the spotlight for a few episodes. But when she does, Browning gives an all-too-realistic portrayal of a woman unable to attain happiness through mediocrity. And then there's Chris Obi's haunting god of the dead Anubis, Mousa Kraish's fire-eyed Jinn, Omid Abtahi's discontented immigrant Salim, Demore Barnes' story keeper Mr. Ibis, and somehow many more surprises. What's more, because Bryan Fuller likes to appeal to as many of his fans' senses as possible, the sound design team used just about everything under the sun to craft a slew of different sound cues and themes for many of the aforementioned characters. It adds a nice layer of distinction, even if one isn't immediately aware of why it's happening.
Given its abundance of fantastical elements and dense population of characters, American Gods required a mountainous effort to bring its expansive narrative to episodic form. Which is where the superstar creative team of Bryan Fuller and Michael Green come into it, along with the plethora of talented artists putting their all into everything we're seeing and hearing. Fuller is famous for whimsical series with superior storytelling and memorable characters, such as Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls and Hannibal, and American Gods works as a spectacular amalgam of everything he's worked on in the past. Meanwhile, Michael Green's career flourished on shows such as Smallville and Heroes -- where he and Fuller met -- before partly branching out to fanbase-friendly features like Green Lantern and Logan, as well as Alien: Covenant. He's clearly familiar with putting complex mythologies into script form.
In less capable hands, American Gods could have been a complete mess, and it might still have been had it gotten made even a decade ago. Like Hannibal, American Gods is rife with symbolism, with its central war of natives vs. new arrivals only vaguely masking the actual history of this great nation of ours, and as any recent headline with the word "immigrant" lets us know, that war hasn't ended on an idealogical level. And considering how tethered we are to the Internet and TV, antagonists like Technical Boy and Media only get more relevant with each passing year.
But even beyond the themes and subtext, the utter magnificence of American Gods' constantly changing visual aesthetic needed the most powerful technology possible, requiring its now-ness. With the help of talented directors like David Slade, Craig Zobel, Vincenzo Natali and more, Bryan Fuller and Michael Green exceed expectations in making Neil Gaiman's novel an eye-popping (sur)reality. From trippy dream sequences to brutal and bloody fights to otherworldly creatures to comedian Dane Cook's presence as the aforementioned best friend Robbie, American Gods never fails to deliver something to watch, something to marvel at, something to find meaning in. And for fans of the novel wondering if Bilquis' infamous manner of "feeding" on her worshippers is intact, it certainly is, and it's super fucking weird.
On that note, I'll make a brief but probably necessary concession that American Gods is going to be too weird for some people. And considering its high-impact serialization doesn't reach out to hold confused viewers' hands, even the ones who desperately want to understand, there are definitely going to be some who can't keep up or plain don't care to. The unencumbered nudity and bloodshed will piss off the usual suspects, and it definitely won't sit well with anyone who wants TV to evolve .
As a huge fan of just about everything Neil Gaiman and Bryan Fuller have been a part of, I was basically tailor-made to love Starz's American Gods with every stitch of my Made in the U.S.A. skin. However, I've had pre-presumed love for plenty of TV shows and movies that failed to measure up to any form of scrutiny. No god of guarantees exists that could have ascertained American Gods' greatness, so it came down to the work of a lot of dedicated men and women from all different backgrounds to amaze us. (America!) And by the light of Ian McShane's hair, American Gods not only takes Starz to new heights with its original programming, but it sets a new bar for what television is capable of providing. Neil Gaiman hopefully couldn't be more proud.