When NBC canceled Hannibal in 2015, fans were rightly pissed off that one of the network’s best shows – run by one of its most talented writers, Bryan Fuller – was suddenly being ripped off the air for no apparent reason. A handful of different justifications came up, with the general consensus being that low ratings as a result of piracy led to the show’s untimely demise. Personally, I think it’s possible that Fuller’s vision was just a little bit too radical for network television. And after watching the first episode of Starz’s new series, American Gods (on which he is the co-creator), I’m starting to think my suspicions may actually be true.
Based on Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel, American Gods follows a prison inmate named Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), who gets released a few days early after his wife Laura (Emily Browning) is killed in a car accident. Upon his release, Shadow’s plans to get home in time for the funeral are thwarted at every turn by uncooperative airline employees, sudden changes in weather, and the occasional leprechaun. What ties all these seemingly random events together is a man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), a conniving old charlatan who does his best to convince Shadow to come work for him.
Initially reluctant to even engage in a simple conversation with the guy, Shadow is backed into a corner when it’s revealed that both his wife and best friend – one who was going to set him up with a job – were killed in the accident. Not only that, the two were engaged in a long-term affair right up until the end, meaning Shadow has no one and nowhere to go home to. Given his current situation, Shadow agrees to come work for the suspicious Mr. Wednesday, but only until he gets annoyed with him. And for two grand a week.
The first episode of Starz’s new series is an entertaining, but occasionally frustrating start to one of the most anticipated new releases of 2017. I don’t know if I’m the only one who feels this way, but a lot of Starz’s shows (specifically this one and Spartacus) are often filmed in a way that make me feel like anyone at any given time is either going to break out in song or start having sex without warning. There’s this porn/musical glossiness to it that can be distracting at times, but more often than not American Gods is shot extremely well, with a focus on stylish and visually hypnotic close-ups that’s as distracting as it is mesmerizing.
The episode begins with a prologue depicting a ship full of Viking warriors as they come ashore a previously unexplored island. They’re greeted by the area’s harsh, even mystical conditions, and realize that the only way out is to satisfy the Gods of war that lord over the land. The sequence sets the tone for what American Gods is, but also what it’s not. The show is absolutely one of the most violent things I’ve ever seen, but often unnecessarily, and I wonder how the episodes to come will find that balance between being thrilling and genuinely intriguing. Because this first episode is a whole lot of one and not nearly enough of the other.
And that’s an issue that extends to just about everything from the performances to the pacing to the writing, and even the soundtrack. The show’s poor lead is just thrown around from scene to scene, doing his best to act his way out of every encounter as best as he can, but the episode offers him no structure upon which to build this character. One moment he’s crying about his dead wife, the next he’s in a bar fight with a leprechaun named Mad Sweeney played by Pablo Schreiber (who’s just horribly miscast, despite being one of my favorite actors right now). The show is constantly throwing things at you – the barrage of arrows in the prologue, the buffalo with flames for eyes, that sequence featuring Joel Murray’s one night stand with the goddess Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) – but I had to really ask myself if I felt compelled to continue watching it.
As of now, the answer is: kind of. There’s a lot about American Gods I really like. Fuller throws in enough human touches to make the story at least somewhat relatable – in particular, the moment during Laura’s funeral when the casket gets jammed on its way down reminded me of the broken gurney in Manchester By the Sea – but the episode has to get through so much backstory to leave viewers at the perfect ending point that all those other pesky little things like pacing and coherence kind of just get thrown out the window. By the time Shadow was being drugged in a spaceship, I had given up on trying to understand why any of this was happening and submitted to whatever might come next. I’m all for being confused in the name of a good reveal, but at least give me something to chew on while I wait.
GEEK Grade: B-
Directed by: David Slade
Written by: Bryan Fuller & Michael Green