“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.