American Gods Season 1

While not originally a comic book, American Gods is now being adapted by Dark Horse Comics.  So while this column thematically relates to comic-based film productions, I thought I’d take some liberties with this one.

The first act of the TV series drew to a close not too long ago.  And it ended with, quite literally, a bang.

The world that Neil Gaiman, Bryan Fuller, Michael Green and co. have lovingly and meticulously constructed is textured, rich and satisfying.  This is particularly so for fans of the novel.  Fuller, as the show-runner, has arguably produced his best work. Most recently, he spear-headed Pushing Daisies and Hannibal. Gods is an entirely different kettle of fish, but Fuller manages to imprint his unique aesthetic on it.

American Gods is, to some, Gaiman’s magnus opus.  In the smash-hit novel, the master of the fantastical weaves a spell-binding tale of gods, belonging and Americana.  Starz is not generally considered a first-tier content generator (at least in my view), but the network has shown some significant chops with this show.

The series proves that with enough effort and the right spark of inventiveness, it is possible to faithfully and effectively bring the essence of a book from page to screen.

The thesis of the series is not complex – gods, fuelled by mankind’s belief, exist in our realm in varying states.  They walk the earth with us, eking out difficult lives in an age of unbelief and atheism.  Many are but shells of themselves, victims of modernity and progress.  It is, in many ways, a duel between faith and science.

And so, Mr Wednesday, along with his sombre sentinel of a side-kick Shadow, embarks on a cryptic sojourn across the American countryside to recruit gods.  War is brewing, and the rumblings are palpable.  Together with the viewer, Shadow’s dialectic pursuits soon cave to the supernatural.

Gaiman has writing credits on all eight episodes, and that shines through.  The series is a sterling example of a creator having a big hand in the adaptation of source material.  The mood of the novel is realized and reflected in full HD glory.  The atmosphere is ominous and otherwordly, providing a suitable launch-pad for the deities’ travails.  This is a topsy-turvy, phantasmagorical universe in truest Gaiman form.

The producers haven’t scrimped on the effects, and the CG is well thought out and put to good use.  The New Gods are creatively realized on screen in chimaeric, dissonant form. The use of colour, lighting and texture is also impressive, with under and over-saturated images interspersed throughout the story. In so many surreal, hypnagogic scenes, we are transported into magical, star-filled realms of imagination.  Rural America takes on a surrealistic quality; an ancient land populated by ancient and not-so-ancient inhabitants.

The prelude flashback scenes are effective tools in bridging the gap between the old gods and their current incarnations.  History comes to the fore in so many of these vignettes, which are adeptly related to us by the impassive Jacquel.  The Vikings’ coming to America-ordeal and Anansi’s macabre cameo on the slave ship are just some of the powerful openers that whet the viewers’ appetite.

The characterizations are a treat, and fans of the novel will be delighted with so many of the castings.

Ian McShane is a spot-on choice for the wily, roguish fox, Mr Wednesday.   Ricky Whittle also does well to fill the shoes of the stoic, plain-speaking Shadow.  He’s the straight man to the eccentric, comedic Wednesday, and the chemistry between them is an integral element of the show’s foundation.

Gillian Anderson as Media is a highlight in every episode she graces.  She is androgynous, impassive and downright unnerving.  In true David Bowie vein, she effortlessly eases through her roles in a series of chameleonic performances that are powerful and chilling.  If it is at all possible, she seems to seamlessly meld the ethereal and the digital.

Anansi, Czernobog, Mad Sweeney, Low Key and Ostara are also well-represented.  Pick up the book, and you will know what I mean.

American Gods watches like chapters in a book, with each episode forming an essential cog in the grand machinery.  The segues are well-transitioned, which is commendable for a show with so many players and moving parts.

“Git Gone” shines the spotlight on Emily Browning’s Laura Moon.  The character flaws come to the fore, but she is very much humanized and relatable.  The pathos and struggle are tenderly developed, and it’s a powerful episode dealing with universal, existential questions.  Browning does double duties by playing the tragic Essie MacGowan in “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney”.  It’s another strong performance in a heart-breaking, sentimental episode.

The Sweeney-Laura dynamic is nuanced and emotionally-resonant.  As the show progresses, the quarrelsome leprechaun, wracked with guilt for his past transgressions, reveals that he is not just a straightforward A-hole.

The controversial Salim-Jinn encounter drew many gasps. But distilled to its essence, it’s a poignant and painful tale of despair and loneliness.

The Vulcan episode is another impressive showing.  A dark, satirical indictment of industrialization and gun culture, it provides a strong link between the fantasy setting and the present reality.  It’s an ingenious yet intuitive reimagining of the god of fire and forge, and Corbin Bernsen is perfect in the role.

Up to the final moments of the season, audiences have been entertained and seduced by Wednesday’s eclectic charm.  The finale shows us the final (and perhaps true) face of Wednesday – the powerful and manipulative Odin.  His summoning of lightning is an awesome display of elemental might – raw and unbridled.  It is surprising and satisfying to see that the old geezer is more than meets the eye.  The cynical development is Sweeney’s confirmation that Wednesday was the mastermind behind Mrs Moon’s untimely demise.

Sweeney’s speech on the capriciousness of the gods is an important moment, reinforcing the base nature of those once thought holy.  This is a central theme emanating through the show – the humanization of the supposedly-divine, with all their frailties and common desires.  And that, we are told, is the problem with gods, American or otherwise.

Verdict: A

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