Review: Starz’s ‘American Gods’ Is the Weirdest Dream You’ll Ever Have
This post contains some minor SPOILERS for Starz’s American Gods:
I loved — but can’t bring myself to revisit — Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal. It’s not that I have a distaste for its gorgeously cerebral tale; more that I’m unnerved by Fuller’s dreamlike style that drifts about like dark stream of consciousness. Fuller and frequent director David Slade live in the smallest details; extreme close-ups on the mixture of blood and soap, or keys sliding through lock tumblers. Starz’s American Gods feels right at home with that brand of unrestrained, visceral storytelling.
Based on the 2001 Neil Gaiman novel, the show follows a man by the “outstandingly improbable” name of Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) who discovers on the eve of his release from prison that his wife has died in an accident. His journey home leads to a chance job offer from the strangely persistent Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), who seeks an all-purpose valet as he travels the country recruiting equally enigmatic figures to his cause.
That simple storytelling engine is the strongest aspect of Fuller’s show, and McShane and Whittle share weird, lyrical chemistry; the latter balancing the former’s esoteric bravado with world-weary gravitas. The problem with American Gods is the title characters, who are often introduced in short stories that break the narrative flow. The series’ opening moments, which use Viking history to foreshadow a major character’s appearance, work nicely, but subsequent intros are often more out-of-place than arresting. In 1697, a shipment of slaves pray to the god Anansi for salvation, and out pops a rainbow suit-and-fedora’d Orlando Jones to deliver a fiery speech about black oppression over the next 300 years. In the present, a power-starved fertility goddess seduces strangers in a bar to physically consume them in strange, captivating sex scenes. At the same time in New York, a lonely salesman finds unexpected intimacy and longing with a cab-driving “Ifrit,” another unflinching sequence that feels divorced from the scenes around it.
Even the so-called Gods that do directly impact Shadow Moon’s arc don’t fit into his journey seamlessly. Pablo Schreiber revels in the part of a fight-hungry leprechaun desperate to upstage Shadow, but falls into the same pattern as the ultra-sleek “Technical Boy” and Gillian Anderson’s Media: Appear out of nowhere, tease Shadow on his limited understanding of the overall plot, and promptly vanish. The deities with the most screen time are Peter Stormare’s Czernobog and Cloris Leachman’z Zorya, granted a two-episode* stint that feels like Twin Peaks on crack. American Gods is essentially the weirdest dream you’ll ever have, as nicely summarized by Wednesday himself: “Strange is a new language, and what we’re doing here is vocabulary-building.”
*The offbeat pacing comes to a head in the third hour, but for good reason. As Fuller explained, production problems forced them to stitch together two different episodes, and the result is noticeably jarring.
It’s gorgeous and disjointed, but I still feel American Gods does its best work in its more linear, more human moments. We don’t even get to know Emily Browning’s Laura Moon until a later episode, which circles back to contextualize Shadow’s late wife as an unapologetically flawed woman dissatisfied with her piece of the American dream. That’s also one of the few episodes to actually pay off another god’s earlier introduction, and without skimping on the kind of absurdity Bryan Fuller’s darker shows lack.
American Gods will look differently to those who’ve actually read the book, and even then, its first season may only cover a third of its source material. The pacing is likely to alienate some viewers, especially since one entire episode is spent explaining a previous episode’s cliffhanger twist. Still, so long as you can weather the meandering narrative, American Gods will reward you with some of the most ambitiously weird, thought-provoking, and perfectly-cast television out there.
AND ANOTHER THING …
- There are some terrific standout performances early on, from characters like Jonathan Tucker’s Low Key Lyesmith and Orlando Jones’ Anansi. It’s a shame we have to wait to see more of them.
- My notes include a “Pile of Weird S---,” which spans everything from a horrifically blasé death for a Hannibal favorite, to Ian McShane making out with Cloris Leachman.
- Adventures in temporary audio tracks on screeners: Laura Moon’s life is apparently scored to The Social Network.
- Dane Cook! Not as distracting as you fear.
American Gods will premiere on Starz Sunday, April 30 at 9:00 P.M.