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Josh Reviews American Gods Season One

A few years ago I read and absolutely loved Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods.  It was weird and wonderful and funny and heartbreaking and I pretty much loved every page.  I was of course interested when I heard that there would be a TV adaptation, and then when when it was announced that Bryan Fuller (whose name I first got to know as a writer on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and who has subsequently created and run several acclaimed shows) would be the show-runner, I was very excited.

The show, like the novel, begins with Shadow: a man released from prison only to discover that his wife has a) cheated on him and b) died while doing so.  At a loss as to what to do with his life, his path crosses with the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday, who convinces Shadow to come work for him as his driver and assistant.  It turns out that Mr. Wednesday just might actually be the god Odin, who is own a mission to gather the many other Old Gods living across the United States to fight back against the New Gods who Wednesday feels are preparing to destroy them.

Mr. Gaiman’s original novel is centered around upon the intriguing notion that anyone who believes something manifests that belief into the actual deity, and their belief and worship gives that deity power.  And so, as immigrants came to America across the centuries, they brought many of their Gods with them.  But now, in a pointed critique of modern American life, the book suggests that we have turned away from those Old Gods and, instead, given form to New Gods who express the things we worship today: media, technology, etc.  This is a delicious idea.  The novel works because it is filled with fascinating concepts and compelling characters — Mr. Gaiman is a master at making each of his characters interesting and unique.

The eight-episode TV adaptation is a mixed bag.  It’s not at all what I would call a success, but there are too many fascinating and compelling ideas and moments in it to consider it a failure, either.  There are scenes in these episodes that count among the most striking and interesting things I have seen on TV in a good long while.  But unfortunately it doesn’t all come together in a satisfying way, as I will attempt to explain.

Let’s start with what works: the cast is fantastic.  I wasn’t at all familiar with Ricky Whittle before seeing him as Shadow here in this series, but he’s great.  He combines the physicality of a tough guy with a gentleness of voice and manner that is perfect for Shadow.  We have to invest in and root for Shadow for this story to work, and Mr. Whittle’s performance brings the audience along with Shadow’s journey.  One of the problems with the series is that after the first episode (which is a pretty straight adaptation of the novel’s first few chapters), we lose the focus on Shadow among all the other craziness going on around him, and this winds up hurting the show.

Ian McShane is absolutely perfect as Mr. Wednesday.  Wednesday needs to be able to have easy-going charm — which he uses to persuade many characters in the story to do things they might not otherwise do — with a core of steel and danger beneath.  Mr. McShane embodies these traits perfectly.  He also makes Wednesday into a very funny character, delivering his lines with an endearing twinkle in his eye.

The biggest revelation of the series for me was Pablo Schreiber as Mad Sweeney, a very tall leprechaun.  I was familiar with Mr. Schreiber’s work as “Pornstache” on Orange is the New Black, but holy hell was he head and shoulders above what I’d expected here.  He’s incredibly magnetic in the role: loud and brash and funny and also heartbreaking.  In the second half of this season, the show wisely chose to expand upon Mad Sweeney’s role in the book, giving us a lot more of Mr. Schreiber, for which I am very thankful.

The show also chose to expand upon the book’s depiction of Laura Moon, Shadow’s dead wife.  Emily Browning plays Laura, and she’s great.  She shows us all of Laura’s flaws — how she was mostly dead on the inside before she became all the way dead on the outside — and still somehow allows us to invest our empathy in this character.  At first I’d wondered why this movie-star had taken on this relatively small role.  When I saw how the show had tweaked the story to bring more focus to Laura in the second half of the season, I understood.

Crispin Glover plays the New God Mr. World, and Gillian Anderson plays the New God Media, and wow, what perfect casting for both of them.  Mr. Glover brings all of the weird menace you’d expect from his work to the role of this Big Bad, and it is a hoot.  Meanwhile, the show decided to depict Media in the form of various pop-culture figures (expanding upon the memorable scene from the book in which Media appeared on Shadow’s TV in the form of Lucy from I Love Lucy), and so we got the joy of Ms. Anderson dressed up not just as Lucy Ricardo, but also as David Bowie (my favorite guise!), Marilyn Monroe, and Judy Garland.  Ms. Anderson is fantastic in each of these personas.

But that’s nowhere near the end of the big names who pop up in these eight episodes!  Cloris Leachman appears Zorya Vechernyaya, “the Evening Star”, an elderly Russian Old God, while Peter Stormare plays Czernobog, her brother/husband (I’m not quite sure).  Orlando Jones plays Mr. Nancy, a trickster god who can take the form of a spider.  Kristin Chenoweth plays Easter; Corbin Bernsen plays Vulcan; Jeremy Davies plays Jesus; and Dane Cook pops up as Shadow’s former best-friend Robbie.  Each of these talented actors makes a wonderful meal out of their short appearances in the show!  It elevates the work having this array of talented actors filling out the cast.  (And there are so many other great actors who appear in the show who I haven’t named!)

The show’s visual style is extraordinary.  This was a show that aimed to be epic, and had the budget to (mostly) back up those ambitions.  The show is jam-packed with extraordinarily ambitious sequences, particularly the many scenes that tell stories of the histories of the Old Gods.  (This was a thread that wove through the book, and I am delighted it was incorporated — and even expanded upon in some ways — here on the show.)  The sets, the costumes, the visual effects — all are incredibly impressive.  This isn’t a show that reused a lot of standing sets.  All of the characters are on the road for most of the story, and so every episode had loads of new locations and settings and characters, which only amplifies the impressiveness of the show’s visuals and what they were able to accomplish.

Mr. Fuller and his team also clearly set out to push the envelope in terms of their content.  There is some graphic violence, and graphic sex in the show.  There’s an eye-popping extended sexual encounter between two men that is quite a few steps beyond anything I’d seen on TV before.  I love the show’s ambition in these areas.

The show surprised me in the many ways that, as the season progressed, it moved away from Mr. Gaiman’s novel.  Many of those changes I quite enjoyed!  I loved, for instance, how the heartbroken Muslim man who encounters a Djinn (and then apparently becomes one himself), was fleshed out and then involved in Laura and Mad Sweeney’s road trip.  That was great!  (I was sad to see the Djinn drive off at the end — I’d hoped he would stay involved with the story!)  The new-for-the-show sequence with the Old God Vulcan, and the town that still makes human sacrifices to him, was suitably creepy and memorable.  While the book barely mentioned Jesus, I loved Jeremy Davies’ portrayal and how Jesus was involved in Easter’s party in the last episode.  And, as I noted above, the whole new-for-the-show subplot of Laura and Mad Sweeney together was fantastic, perhaps my favorite aspect of the show in the end.  I was surprised, and a bit disappointed, that this first season didn’t take us further into the story of the novel, but after thinking about it I can understand why those choices were made, since this was intended to be a multi-season new show and not a mini-series.

So what doesn’t work?  Everything I’ve described so far sounds pretty great!  And, indeed, it is.  There is a lot of greatness in these eight episodes.  The problems, for me, are twofold.  First of all, I felt that the show lost the thread of the main character, Shadow, as the episodes progressed.  In the book, Shadow is the main focus, and we go through this story along with him.  While the show’s first episode focused on Shadow, and certainly hooked me into his life, his problems, and his journey, after that I felt the focus wavered.  I am all for changing this story into more of an ensemble piece.  In fact, the later episodes that focused on Laura, and on Laura and Mad Sweeney’s road trip together, were high-points for me!!  But the unfortunate ripple-effect in the execution was that as events were unfolding, we didn’t get to know what Shadow was thinking or feeling.  He sort of went through the same motions of “wow this is all weird” every time he and Wednesday encountered a new God character, but things didn’t get any deeper than that.  As a result, as the season wound down I wasn’t nearly as connected to Shadow — or to any of the other characters — as I’d expected to be.  And so I didn’t care as much about any of what was happening on screen as I should have.

I mentioned Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (my favorite of the Trek shows!) above, and I remember reading that DS9′s show-runner Ira Steven Behr used to use the phrase “to much of a muchness.”  The biggest problem for me with American Gods was that, while I enjoyed many of its individual elements, the whole thing wound up being too much of a muchness for me.  The show was just too busy, too loud, too crazy, too filled with images and moments trying to be shocking, over and over again.  It just all became too much for me, and made the show hard for me to watch.  Take the soundtrack, for example.  The show is filled with some terrific musical moments, and I loved that the soundtrack — like everything else in the show — was designed to be different from the usual quiet TV background music, and instead to have an interesting identity all its own.  That’s a great idea, and there are moments in the show when it really works.  But there were also far too many moments for me in which an interesting scene was happening, but the music behind that scene became a huge distraction for me, because it was too loud in the soundtrack and/or it was competing with the audience for our attention in a way that, for me, totally undermined the scene and took me out of that moment.  Even the show’s opening credits were too loud and crazily colored for me.  Usually I am the type of fellow who loves watching show’s opening credits sequences — but this one I skipped every time after the first episode, because I just found it too garish and hard to take.

I wish I had enjoyed this show more, over-all!  There were so many elements that I thought were great.  But in the end, I kept coming back to the thought that I was sad that Mr. Fuller had to drop out of running Star Trek: Discovery in order to run this show.  It’s a disappointment only exacerbated by the news that broke, after this first season had been completed, that Mr. Fuller was leaving the show and would not be returning to run the second seasonGillian Anderson dropped out soon thereafter, which leaves the whole future of the show in doubt for me.  (This first season only adapts the beginning of Mr. Gaiman’s novel — the season ends on a cliffhanger and there is still a lot of story left to be told.)  I hate starting to watch something that isn’t going to be completed — or, if it is completed, not in the way it was originally intended by its creators.  I assume that, under different leadership, there will eventually be a season two of American Gods.  (Here is the latest news on that front.)  I haven’t yet decided whether I will watch it.

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