Starz's new series American Gods (Sunday, April 30 at 9/8c), adapted from Neil Gaiman's acclaimed novel of the same name, has the potential to be the next prestige drama that ensnares America, the internet and the world over. But it's not quite there yet.
Fans of Gaiman's novel, about a brewing war between the old gods of biblical and mythological roots and the new gods of the growing age of media and technology, have been waiting years for the right person to come along and adapt the novel's slow building, sometimes confusing, but ultimately powerful story for television. After a potential series failed to get off the ground at HBO, the project found its way to Starz and the right person for the job turned out to be two: Bryan Fuller, the ambitious creator of shows like the low-rated but beloved psychological thriller Hannibal and the color-saturated, whimsical dramedy Pushing Daisies, and Michael Green, whose name you may not know but whose work you certainly do. He's had his hands in several high-profile films of late, including the well-received superhero film Logan.
Together Fuller and Green have shaped American Gods into a beautiful, if confusing, adaptation of Gaiman's award-winning work, one that greatly benefits from being on a pay cable network. This freedom allows Fuller — maybe the most creative showrunner working in TV today — to indulge himself in his most exuberant tendencies by once again turning the bizarre into gorgeous works of strange art. Those familiar with his previous series will immediately recognize his rich, distinctive handiwork — both visually and aurally — and on a purely stylistic level, the series predictably soars. But on a storytelling level, viewers with no previous knowledge of Gaiman's novel — and maybe even those with it — will find themselves lost in the weeds on the side of the road as they wait, somewhat impatiently, for the show to reach its intended destination.
In that sense, the series is similar to the book upon which it is based, which moves slowly and doles out answers only when it's good and ready. But while the dense world-building may work on the page — and you can argue that it doesn't work there either — it's much more troublesome on screen, particularly when the first season consists of only eight episodes in which to introduce viewers to a world as expansive as this.
Our entry point into the series is the relatively uncomplicated Shadow Moon (The 100's Ricky Whittle), a recent ex-con mourning the death of his wife Laura (Emily Browning), who was engaged in an affair with Shadow's best friend Robbie (Dane Cook) prior to her death just days before Shadow's release. Grief-stricken, unemployed and unmoored, Shadow finds himself agreeing to accompany and protect a persistent and an enigmatic con man known only as Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) in his many endeavors.
The quickness with which this happens coupled with the show's understandable, if problematic, determination to focus on the relationship between Shadow and Wednesday, means there's little time for Shadow to actually mourn Laura before skipping town. This threatens to become problematic once the series flashes back, in Episode 4, to tell the story of Shadow and Laura before the former went to prison.
Those who've read the book know that Wednesday is eventually revealed to be the Norse god Odin, on a mission to gather his forces in preparation for a battle against the new gods of Media (Gillian Anderson) and Technical Boy (newcomer Bruce Langley), and the signs as to Wednesday's true identity are all there from the start — for those who know where to look — but it takes a while for Shadow to come to understand the truth about this strange man to whom he's hitched his wagon. Quite unsurprisingly, McShane steals the spotlight as the gruff but lovable Wednesday as he embroils Shadow in his complicated two-man cons, while Whittle is left playing a bit of catch up. But it also fits more or less with where Shadow is in the early going, so it's not all that troublesome.
As the story unfolds and the two men criss-cross America, viewers come to meet a number of men and women whose names and cultural significance has long been forgotten by those who first brought them to America. The series doesn't bother with formal introductions to most of these characters, choosing to let the story unfold much the way it does in the book, through Shadow's eyes. However, where the series does diverge from its source material is in the expanded roles for a number of female characters, including Laura, Robbie's widow Audrey (Betty Gilpin) and the goddess Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), which adds new depth to the complex story being told.
And the time has never been more ripe to tell the story of American Gods. Through lonely highways and seedy motel rooms, the barren landscape of rural middle America is highlighted and exposed through the lens of a fierce battle that is, at its heart, about cultural preservation and identity in America. An immigrant's tale of coming to America, the novel's subject matter feels incredibly relevant today. It's an unfortunate statement about the current, broken state of America and what it means to be an American, but there exists a possibility — if the series becomes a more cohesive story — that viewers could walk away from American Gods believing in something again.
American Gods premieres Sunday, April 30 at 9/8c on Starz.