“American Gods” was the first screening I attended at SXSW and may have even been the best of the events so far. Based on the densely-paged Neil Gaiman novel, the new Starz television series faces extremely high expectations. With rich, deeply inventive literary material to excavate, Starz made the correct call to invest in potentially the next high-budget, high-spectacle television series on its hands. After viewing the world premiere of the pilot episode, my expectations were beyond fulfilled.
In a brief video message from novelist Gaiman himself, he introduced the series as a project that he is extremely proud of. It is rare for authors to fully praise cinematic adaptations of their work yet, according to Gaiman, the series has his blessing.
The series begins with Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), a convict facing heartache and grief after a fresh release from prison. In a cruel twist of fate, his beloved wife dies in a car accident, days before his scheduled release. Directionless and hardened with his only raison d'être crushed, his luck plummets further after losing his chance to fly home for his wife’s funeral. Queue the arrival of Mr. Wednesday, played with scene-stealing charisma by Ian McShane. Despite his deceptive appearance, he is, in fact, a god, his specific identity a mystery. Wednesday ropes Shadow into a deal, perhaps with the devil, that contractually binds him to be his right-hand man, inadvertently introducing him to the hidden world of the gods. The gods are a dying breed in America, once held on a pedestal back when religion was a fundamental piece of everyday life, now forgotten by the wayside as faith is lost and unbelievers are plentiful.
The show’s special effects are jaw-dropping. I have never before seen this level of fabricated eye candy before on television. It is admittedly flashy but justifiably so; after all, this is a show about the gods. Herein lies the most difficult question—what is the best way to depict a god on television? This is just one difficulty of many that the creators, Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, no doubt faced when adapting Gaiman’s complex descriptions of gods that seem impossible to capture onscreen. Fuller and Green call this task “god flesh,” the unique undertaking of depicting the gods in human form that are “made of thought form.” Their finished product is artful, innovative and rewarding, no doubt earning Gaiman’s trust when backing this project. The cinematography is breathtaking, cohesively melding fantasy with reality, adding textual layers to the mundane and thrilling the senses.
After the jarring opening scene, it is clear that the show will not shy away from edgy material. Sex, blood, guts and gore will most likely adorn the series in the way premium channels exploit and fetishize. However, the show’s content is riskier not because of these conventions, but with its subtextual commentary on our current political climate. During the Q and A, Fuller and Green describe the show as a “big immigration story.” The casting was not color-blind but color-focused. Gaiman purposefully wrote each character with an ethnicity that plays an integral piece of the narrative. Fuller and Green felt obligated to respect that through their casting process. Refreshingly, Shadow and his wife Laura (Emily Browning) are a biracial couple, something rarely represented in Hollywood.
The series is also actively attempting to add more powerful female characters to the TV landscape. Fuller and Green decided to expand upon the female roles written in the novel to strengthen the material in favor of a more feminist narrative. The large cast, with a slew of potential god roles to fill, creates a smorgasbord of potential for A-list actors to eat up. Gillian Anderson and Kristin Chenoweth are already cast as gods to be revealed in later episodes and the talented cast will, no doubt, continue growing. It is rare to find a series that indulges in the fantastical as well as connecting with reality. “American Gods” is multifaceted, rich with potential and weaves a relevant message within its complex narrative: Our beliefs are what bring us together.