“This is the only country in the world that wonders what it is,” Mr. Wednesday suggests early in Starz’s new fantasy drama American Gods.
Wednesday (Ian McShane) would know. Like most of the characters in the show — adapted by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green from the beloved Neil Gaiman novel(*), it debuts Sunday at 9pm ET (I’ve seen the first four episodes) — he is a god whose pantheon has long since fallen out of fashion, but who at one time in the distant past was known and worshipped by every man, woman, and child of a particular region of this planet, where there was a unity of faith, culture, and identity. Now, though, these Norse and Slavic and West African and Irish gods and otherwise magical creatures have long since lost their followers, who have moved on to new ideas and new gods, and so they live on the fringes of America: a nation of immigrants, who have brought bits and pieces of the gods’ old cultures here and tossed them into the great American melting pot. Those tiny scraps of belief are just enough to keep the gods up and moving, even though their circumstances are far shabbier than in the days when they had entire nations praying to them. Wednesday is an itinerant con man, leprechaun Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) an angry barfly, Egyptian death god Anubis (Chris Obi) now works as a mortician, while a Jinn (Mousa Kraish) drives a cab in New York, occasionally granting a passenger’s wish.
(*) I read (and liked) the book when it was first published back in 2001, but found when watching the show that I remembered almost nothing about it, save the true identities of a few characters. This turned out to be useful, as I got to be continually surprised by plot developments in what is, per critic friends who’ve read the book more recently, a pretty faithful translation.
Our guide to this strange new world is a thief called Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), just out of prison and eager to get home to his wife Laura (Emily Browning), but distracted by tragedy and a job offer from Wednesday, who seems to know far more about Shadow than Shadow does about himself. Wednesday’s amassing an army of old gods to do battle against some new ones who represent the aspects of modern life that we worship at the altars of — Gillian Anderson, for instance, pops up as Media, who channels iconic pop cultural figures (a fabulous showcase for Anderson, in the midst of a great second act to her career) — even as he tries to teach his young assistant the tricks of the godly trade during their road trip across these United States.
Though Wednesday is the show’s most overt flimflam artist, there’s a sense that many of its deities have become — and maybe always were — hustlers of a high order. As Wednesday puts it when explaining a particular scam to Shadow, “It’s all about getting them to believe in you.” And we see throughout the series the way certain old gods — say, the love deity Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), who literally absorbs her sexual partners — have to trick people into giving themselves over, body, mind, and, especially, soul.
These issues of belief, of national vs. religious identities, of the way culture is passed down and spread out in unexpected ways — Laura is a blackjack dealer at an Ancient Egyptian-themed casino that uses Anubis and the rest of his pantheon as exotic scenery — are at the core of the story Fuller and Green (and Gaiman before them) are telling. At times, it’s a deep and powerful saga — the second episode opens with African spider god Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones, breathing rhetorical fire) in the hold of a slave ship telling the captives a tale of warning: “Once upon a time, a man got fucked… That’s the story of black people in America!” — while at many others, it’s more of an exercise in style over substance.
But what style! Fuller and his collaborators — including a bunch of Hannibal directors like David Slade (behind the camera for the first three episodes) and Vincenzo Natali — make every frame of American Gods look museum-quality. The blood and sex on this show are abundant in roughly equal measure — there’s a gay sex scene in the third episode that’s as elaborate as any TV has ever seen, only involving flame, dust, and magic — but presented in a baroque style befitting the scale of the show’s characters. These are gods fighting, and seducing, and these acts can’t be presented as mundane in any way. The whole thing is jaw-dropping to look at, as visually audacious as anything Fuller, Slade, and company did on Hannibal, but without that pesky serial killing. (Though many, many, many bodies drop, starting with a prologue set in Viking times.)
And that cast is something else. As Wednesday, McShane (who starred in Green’s fascinating, short-lived NBC modern Biblical drama Kings) is going full Swearengen: charming and guarded and always three moves ahead of everyone else, albeit less prone to violence given some of the muscle he has on hand. But nearly every actor who comes in — Peter Stormare and Cloris Leachman as a pair of Slavic deities now living in Chicago squalor, Jonathan Tucker as a prison buddy of Shadow’s, Betty Gilpin as a very human friend of Laura’s struggling to make sense of this godly madness — is very clearly having a blast, and the joy and magnificence of their performances are infectious. (Several of the show’s more interesting casting choices — Crispin Glover, Kristin Chenoweth, Jeremy Davies, and Corbin Bernsen, among others — either don’t appear at all in these early episodes, or appear briefly, as the narrative’s a slow build. But I imagine Fuller and Green will give them fun things to play.)
As the man at the center of the storm, Whittle is something of a mixed bag. Shadow is a reserved character by design, and Whittle does well as straight man to McShane, Schreiber, Anderson, and others, but there are times when his cool bearing does him a disservice opposite these much bigger and more charismatic performances. He’s pretty good in a show where almost everyone else is great. Browning’s much more interesting at playing a seemingly normal person who becomes a plaything of the gods, and one of the show’s best episodes is a Laura spotlight revealing how she and Shadow fell in love, and what she was up to during his prison stretch.
American Gods aspires to explore both halves of its title, and many episodes open with a flashback to how one old deity or another found their way onto our shores, to in time become part of this grand and unusual national experiment. Like the humans who once worshipped them, some arrived here with great hope, others because it was the only option remaining. Based on what we see of Mr. Wednesday and the others, the best they’ve been able to manage is simple survival, but the series captures the grandeur of who and what they once were, and can occasionally still be if they can find enough suckers to believe in them again. It’s a blast.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org