Starring: Ricky Whittle, Ian McShane, Emily Browning, Pablo Schreiber, Gillian Anderson
Directed By: Various
Running Time: 450 mins
BBFC Certificate: 18
UK Release Date: July 31st 2017
Quite a lot of people have tried to get Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel to the screen, but it’s never happened until now. Despite being beloved by a lot of people, you can see why the money men were nervous about ponying up the cash for a film or TV version, as the book is often strange, surreal and quite graphic, with various tangents and peculiar moments that could be unintentionally funny in the wrong hands.
However, executive producer Bryan Fuller was the right man to hire, as with the likes of Hannibal and Pushing Daisies he’s shown an affinity with unusual, multi-layered tale that often verge towards the surreal. He certainly brings that to American Gods, which is often perplexing and weird, and will annoy some due to the fact it obstinately refuses to fully explain what going on.
Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) is released from prison just in time for the funeral of his wife, Laura (Emily Browning), who was killed in a car wreck while giving another man a BJ. Things begin to take a strange turn when a man calling himself Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), wants to hire Shadow as a body man. Wednesday is travelling around the country trying to get people to sign up for his cause. He believes a battle needs to be fought, as the world is forgetting them, and new people are coming along to replace them.
And those new people aren’t pleased about what Wednesday is up to, with a bratty, technology obsessed club kid (Bruce Langley) out to stop him, while a modern-media woman in various guises (Lucille Ball, David Bowie, Marilyn Monroe – all played by Gillian Anderson) tries to get Shadow over to their side. But is either side the ‘good’ side?
And yes, that is a little vague, which is largely because the series itself is vague for the first seven episodes about who these people are. They appear to have supernatural powers, and the prelude to most episodes shows how a God or ‘mythical’ creature (for example, a 6ft 5in leprechaun played by Pablo Schreiber plays a major role) arrived in the US. However, with many of these arrivals and jumps to other characters, it’s never clear how it ties into the main plot, or even if it does at all. Presumably we are seeing the growing rivalry between old and new gods, but it’s rarely completely clear.
Add to that a lot of strange things happening, whether it’s a buffalo with flames shooting out of its eyes, Shadow’s wife coming back to life in a still decaying body, or a woman whose vagina literally devours her partners while they’re having sex. The latter of those is one of the things that could easily have come across as silly on screen, but American Gods gets away with it by maintaining a surreal feel and a knowing air that invites the audience to smile at its ridiculousness while also enjoying the strangeness.
Admittedly, some will get frustrated by its refusal to be clear about who these people and what they’re doing, but most will get pulled into its strangeness and mystery. Ricky Whittle and Ian McShane are great as the central pairing, with the latter’s charisma particularly vital, due to the fact you never really know who the bad guys and the good guys are – indeed, there’s a distinct chance that everyone supernatural in the show is a shade of asshole, and most of the humans too. McShane puts on the charm, so you always want to find out what he’s going to get up to next, even if there’s a distinct chance he might be evil personified (or maybe not).
Whittle also does a good job in a tough role, which is at least partly to be our guide to this ‘world under a world’, with the first season essentially being his journey (and ours) to whether he believes all this stuff is real or not. That requires him to often react to very weird stuff in ways that aren’t particularly believable, but Whittle does it very well.
It’s also a show that’s very proud of its over the top violence (it opens with a ridiculously blood-soaked sequence involving Vikings on a beach) and explicit sex. That includes what’s been described as the most explicit gay sex scene ever on US TV. It takes place between two Muslims – a man and a Djinn – which allows things to go in a strange direction, involving CGI/stylised excited man bits and someone literally being filled by an ejaculation of fire. It is explicit and extremely well done, but initially it does slightly smack of tokenism, simply because we don’t see these characters before or for a long time after their encounter (admittedly though, there are quite a lot of characters who only show up once or twice, out of context of the main plot). Thankfully, the man re-emerges towards the end, which helps bring context and humanity to what’s happened, and helps avoid it feeling that they went as far as they did just for the inevitable column inches such a scene would generate.
It is a good show though, even if it is weird, bizarre and designed so that as a viewer you don’t 100% know what is going on. Thankfully, things begin to get a bit clearer in the final episode, when it starts to confirm or deny what appears to have been happening in the previous instalments. There’s still plenty of mystery left for Season 2 though, which should debut next year.
Overall Verdict: Impressively peculiar, American Gods is strange, perplexing, weird and sometimes a little annoying, but it’s also surprisingly compulsive and certainly feels true to Neil Gaiman’s book (even if it does change quite a lot of things).
Reviewer: Tim Isaac
San Diego Comic-Con Panel Footage
Ian McShane Interview
Ricky Whittle & Emily Browning Interview
‘American Gods Origins with Neil Gaiman’ Featurette
Bruce Langley Interview
Ian McShane & Ricky Whittle Interview
‘Book Vs Show’ Featurette
‘New Gods’ Featurette
‘Old Gods’ Featurette
‘What is American Gods?’ Featurette