First look UK TV review: American Gods (spoiler-free)
Someone to hear your prayers9
Someone who cares9
Josh Slater-Williams | On 24, Apr 2017
Already seen or watching American Gods? Read along with our reviews of each episode here.
Following a slew of production attempts over the years, including an HBO incarnation and at least one stab at a feature film, Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel American Gods, a phantasmagorical journey through the immigrant experience and soul of America, finally receives the television treatment – and it gets off to an intense, haunting start.
The wait has definitely been worth it, and not just because the show is now premiering in an all-too-appropriate context where various powers in the United States seem set to undermine change and progress, particularly when it comes to faith and a multicultural society. The source material’s definitely been updated where necessary to reflect the back half of the 2010s more than the early 2000s, but the central ideas of Gaiman’s novel have proved all too prescient.
So, what’s the central gist, then, for the unacquainted?
Shadow Moon (played by Ricky Whittle of Hollyoaks fame) is a convict released from prison a few days earlier than expected, following a shock development concerning his wife, Laura (Emily Browning), back home, across country. While travelling, he begrudgingly takes a job as bodyguard and errand boy for mysterious conman Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane, doing peak Ian McShane), who seems to know an unusual amount about Shadow’s life.
Wednesday encourages Shadow to take care of his affairs back home before they set out on a recruitment drive, in which the older gentleman tries to enlist various figures for an obscured cause – figures who display fantastical abilities. Shadow slowly discovers he’s being introduced to American manifestations of Old Gods of ancient mythology, and that his employer is likely one himself. A conflict is brewing between these old forces and something newer, and this bruiser with a code is caught smack dab in the middle of it all.
The story of Shadow and Mr Wednesday is the spine of the show, but there are additional tales being told on the sidelines. Fans of Gaiman’s novel will recall the ‘Coming to America’ vignettes peppered throughout the book, which explored, over several centuries, how immigrants have brought various deities to American shores. In the opening pair of episodes, two of these vignettes become cold opens prior to our time spent with Shadow and Wednesday, something that will presumably be kept up as the season progresses. The first, concerning Viking oarsmen landing on a beach and taking on the natives, serves best as a mission statement of sorts for fans of showrunner Bryan Fuller’s last big TV project; if you were worried the macabre, gory beauty of Hannibal would not be carried over to American Gods, this opening sequence – credit to director David Slade and cinematographer Jo Willems – should calm you quite quickly.
It’s the vignette that starts the second episode, however, that’s the most ostentatiously impressive. Set aboard a slaving ship bound for American shores, it features Orlando Jones as an anachronistically dressed incarnation of Anansi, an arachnid African trickster god, who has much to tell his chained followers about the fate of the black man in the land they’re heading to, including events that won’t happen for hundreds of years. It’s an incredibly socially relevant spiel (and has been updated to include a nod of sorts to Black Lives Matter), one that the magnetic Jones relishes with fiery passion. The Gaiman-inclined will be aware that, as of the time of writing, Anansi (or Mr. Nancy) is the only American Gods character to get spin-off novel treatment, and this introductory taste of him is enough to inspire wishes of an Anansi Boys show to run concurrently with the main event.
Jones isn’t the only one to get a thrilling tease. Of the Old Gods, we get memorable introductions to, among others, Peter Stormare’s Czernobog, Yetide Badaki’s Bilquis, and Pablo Schreiber as self-described leprechaun Mad Sweeney. On the side of the New Gods, forces who have gained power because of how humans worship today, the standout introduction goes to Gillian Anderson as Media, popping up on supermarket TVs in the form of I Love Lucy’s Lucille Ball to try and entice Shadow to switch sides.
Not that Shadow has much concrete idea at all of what either side wants, yet alone what they are. Fuller and fellow show creator Michael Green go all-in regarding the weirdness of Gaiman’s source text. While they hardly veer into any sort of incomprehensible territory (prior book knowledge is not required), the show definitely requires full investment of one’s focus, because there’s not much in the way of hand-holding through the unmooring narrative, at least at this stage. Mood and atmosphere are the biggest concerns here, and the creative team bring to life a nightmare wonderland where the world the audience surrogate knows is constantly shifting, be it in terms of the very personal or the basic notions of reality and fantasy. A show to watch while simultaneously worshipping the New Gods of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, this most certainly is not.
American Gods premieres exclusively on Amazon Prime Video in the UK on Monday 1st May, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. You can watch American Gods online every Monday, with new episodes arriving within 24 hours of their US broadcast.