Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ is a fun, but decidedly bonkers novel, which makes it about as difficult to bring to the screen as anything else he’s written. The novel’s world is chaotic, and largely involves – Gods doing impossible things, internal dialog, and things which otherwise can’t be seen. Almost as a sort of negotiation with the audience that is about to try to keep up with the impossibility that lays in wait for it, the series opens with a bizarre and brutal introductory story that is bound to be seen as ultimately unnecessary. I can’t even remember if this is in the book (though it sounds like Gaiman), or, obviously, if it is given to readers in anything like the gory detail we get here, but as the kickoff to a show it is certainly letting you know exactly what sort of madness you’ve stumbled into.
American Gods follows the story of Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), and it’s the sort of story that you’ll eventually wish had simply started with, “forget everything you think you know.” We meet Shadow as he’s about to get out of prison, but luck is not on his side. Days before he is set to be released, his wife dies, which unsurprisingly gives us a main character who isn’t on solid ground. During his trip home he meets an odd man who will only give his name as Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane). Mr. Wednesday wants Shadow to work for him (details unknown), but Shadow wants nothing to do with the hustling crackpot. Unfortunately, Mr. Wednesday isn’t one to be brushed off.
What follows is Shadow’s introduction to a world that is very different than he thought, and the preparations for a showdown of sorts between old and new gods.
Ian McShane may never have been better than he is here, and it’s a good thing that the series managed such a touchstone. This is a story that finds Gods swimming in and out, often without preamble or connection of any kind, and it’s a show that doesn’t seem to care how well you’re following along. Normally, I give credit to any show that keeps from having its characters regurgitate the events of the last few minutes in time for every commercial break (because audiences are stupid), but that’s a long way from having no idea why you just watched a scene with someone you may not see again for a few episodes. It’s rather reminiscent of Gaiman’s British TV effort, Neverwhere, which was rather addicting, but offered little hope of knowing what the hell was going on.
At first glance, the show will scream of style and mood over substance, but that’s a reaction that walks a dangerous line. It’s style and mood as substance, a result of throwing back not just to talking about old Gods, but to talking as we talked about old Gods. There’s an impressive, imaginative, and somewhat mischievous commentary about the world we know in play here, but there’s also an effort at bringing forward a perspective that is hard to imagine, much less become a part of. Gaiman often throws himself into ideas that are bewildering and unique, and here there is a clear effort to simply wonder about a world and/or worldview that could produce and accept the mythic yarns of old. Hence, fantastically crazy things happen in American Gods (like a scene involving “swallowing” someone), which is meant to put us in a frame of mind in which we envision all those Greek and Roman “myths” as being much more like news reports.
That’s an interesting ride, as a thought experiment, but a rough road as something people have to keep watching. Whittle and McShane are solid gold as charismatic guides, and Shadow Moon will keep just about anyone invested by virtue of a certain Job-esque, “What more can happen to this guy?” fascination, but the show purposely jars you out of any resemblance of comfort. Every part of it is working at cross purposes to every other part, which makes sense, what with “normal” Shadow making his way on roughly the same journey as the audience. Moreover, the show also exists as a certain conversation about what is/can be humorous, and what that means, which is an interesting but taxing conversation.
Put it all together, and American Gods is a show that people will either love, or be unable to figure out how anyone could watch it at all. There’s no middle ground.
If that’s an adventure you’re willing to be part of, you’ll have the treat of a lifetime, even if that comes only as a result of seeing a variety of actors at their absolute best, including Crispin Glover, Peter Stormare, Pablo Schreiber, and so many more.