To say that American Gods hit the ground running is to understate things to the point of meaninglessness. It hit the ground, the sea, the sky and the universe running – at top speed. Until it set off explosions. Our notes from this episode look like the rantings of a mountainside hermit. “INTENSE AS FUCK” repeats itself more than once, which seems as concise a review of the series debut as possible. This was an hour of television that simply refused to let up and refused to hold the audience’s hand through any of it. There was more plot and more intensely memorable character introductions in that hour than in entire seasons of other, much-lauded shows. We didn’t just meet old gods and new gods. We met furious, drunken, grief-stricken widows begging to desecrate a grave and mush-mouthed cons who tend to be curious fonts of wisdom. We met a love goddess who gives new – and wholly terrifying – meaning to the term “pussy power.” We met a seven-foot tall leprechaun with a taste for bar fights. We met a seemingly omniscient and omnipotent manifestation of technology with the face of a snot-nosed tech impresario. We saw Vikings and faceless drones explode in showers of jewel-toned blood. We saw streams of piss, rivers of blood, trees of bone, and flame-eyed buffalo who speak. We saw people fucking and fighting, praying and screaming, laughing and flirting, mourning and dying. American Gods is almost literally bursting with … life.
At the same time, it’s offering a scathing indictment of American culture and history, make no doubt about it. From the opening scenes of unwelcome immigrants reaching the borders of America and being met with astounding violence before succumbing to religious mania, to the closing scene of a black man hanging from a noose, American Gods is also bursting with a need to shock, offend and make you deeply uncomfortable. For this first episode, most of the criticism is kept symbolic or image-based, but in future episodes, it’s going to get very, very blatant. This show has a lot of things it wants to say and no desire whatsoever to be demure about it.
“FUCK GOD AND CUM HARD” is a bit of graffiti so unsubtly framed and shot in one restroom scene that it might as well been neon-lit while “MISSION STATEMENT” flashed onscreen. Crude and deliberately shocking, it’s as much there to set the tone as it is to set the agenda of the series. Points – some of them fairly damning – are going to be made about the nature of belief, the drivers of faith, and the malleability of the divine. This is a world powered by faith, where a one-eyed conman with a curiously intense charisma can get a person to question whether the plane they’re currently flying in is held aloft by science or by the collective belief of the other people on the plane. This is a world where the “dominant paradigm” of religion and faith has shifted radically as humankind has embraced new things to worship, such as technology. This is a world where the gods of old, literally manifested on these shores by the belief of immigrants, are finding themselves fading in power. Where aged love goddesses swallow their lovers whole in order to remain desirable and father gods fast-talk their way into flying first class while hinting at major storms to come. This is David Lynch on a case of Red Bull and a couple of tabs of acid.
Is it all a bit too much? Not yet, but there’s a high potential for a show like this one to lose sight of the audience’s need for a breather. On the one hand, we found ourselves, while watching the first four episodes, silently thanking shows like Sense8, Legion, American Horror Story and Hannibal for paving the way, so to speak; for demonstrating just how far you can take the shocking imagery, the violence, the weirdness. On the other hand, we know from experience how quickly a show like this one can devolve into nonsense from a need to continually one-up itself. We can’t recommend it enough, but only with the proviso that it could all go south by the fifth episode (the first of the remaining ones we haven’t seen).
One of the best reasons to believe that’s not going to happen is the source material; the novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman. The series does an admirably good job of capturing Gaiman’s essential concepts and point of view very well and the book is ripe with enough ideas that padding it out to a series could theoretically be fairly easily done (said from the comfort of our couch, of course). Our point is that even if it doesn’t go off the rails, you should probably know now that it’s a train ride that just keeps going faster and faster and faster. It’s easily one of the most insane and intense shows we’ve seen in years. Aside from the excellent source material, there are two other aspects of American Gods that are likely to keep this show entertaining as hell for the long haul: the cast, which is to-a-person excellent (and perfectly cast), and the visuals, which are some of the most beautiful – in a sometimes violent or grotesque way, as befits show creator Bryan Fuller, late of the aforementioned Hannibal, as well as other such eye-popping fare as Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls.
At the center of all the insanity is our audience identification character (so long as you find it easy to identify with stunningly beautiful people with amazing bodies and names so romantic it even causes other characters to roll their eyes) Shadow Moon, played by Ricky Whittle. Somehow, he manages to make a character who should be operating at quite a remove from the average viewer seem like the most relatable and down-to-earth person you could find. So salt-of-the-earth that he might have been played by Tom Hanks, if the script called for a middle-aged white man instead of a jaw-droppingly hot man of color. Shadow is no salt-of-the-earth everyman, of course. He’s complicated and dark and violent – and did we mention he’s hot TO DEATH? But Whittle really does have an oddly approachable quality to him, as well as a believable set of reactions to all the weirdness blooming around him, which helps sell the character. Of course, the way he goes around accepting drinks from and getting into fights with beings who seem to be fairly obviously not human doesn’t say much about his sharpness, but even if he hasn’t quite grasped the level of the danger around him, he’s seeking the dark road so hard in the wake of his wife’s death that it doesn’t matter to him at all.
Not to take anything away from Whittle’s performance, but part of the reason this superheroic-looking anti-hero comes across as a relatable everyman is because he’s surrounded by other actors giving the most intense performances that almost anybody would look like a normie in comparison. Ian McShane is as perfect as casting gets as the wily Mr. Wednesday. Every single line of dialogue is rolled around his tongue like a sip of brandy. This is an actor who’s not only perfectly suited to the material, he’s an actor having the time of his life with it. Bruce Langley as the Technical Boy, Pablo Schreiber as Mad Sweeney and Yetide Badaki as the utterly terrifying Bilquis all introduce themselves to the audience in wholly unforgettable ways. Even Betty Gilpin, playing the wife of the man whose penis was found in Shadow’s dead wife’s mouth (you read that right), managed to grab onto that camera in her 5 minutes of screen time and give a performance so raw, funny, and seething with rage that it made us realize how much drama the show is willing to mine from purely human reactions to mind-boggling events. This is the show’s sweet spot. One can say it’s a story “about” warring gods and indicting a culture and history, but as with all stories of myth and legend, it’s really about the people telling it and the people listening to it. Campfire tales and parables told by shamans and cunning women to teach lessons or to keep the dark at bay; stories about unlucky shepherdesses or muses or beautiful youths who crossed paths with the divine and the unholy, only to pay a heavy price for their follies of pride or lust or vanity or greed. American Gods is as raw and as basic as stories and myths can get, while being as wild and visually stunning as a modern audience demands. If it continues to straddle that line as effectively as it has so far, it has the potential to be one of the most fascinating, thought-provoking and controversial shows in the history of the medium.
[Photo Credit: Starz]