“If all this is real and TVs talk and she can read fortunes and hammers bleed, and if there’s a world under a world, then – f**k it,” says Shadow Moon, as he plays checkers with a bloodthirsty Slavic god who wants to knock his brains out with a sledgehammer.
Shadow, played by ex-Hollyoaks actor Ricky Whittle, is an ex-con who gets early release from jail when his wife dies in a car crash. On his way to her funeral he meets the mysterious Mr Wednesday (a perfectly-cast Ian McShane), who pressgangs him into his employment. In this adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s beloved 2001 novel he soon finds himself caught in a war between the Old Gods and the New Gods.
To explain: American Gods is based on the concept that, over the years, all the immigrants who have come to America have brought their gods with them, merging their mythologies into a single landscape.
Now many of the gods are long-forgotten, living on the fringes of American society and scraping an existence from the small acts of worship they can find. So you have the Queen of Sheba Bilquis, brought to life with yearning and a hint of menace by Yetide Badaki. And you have Peter Stomare as the gloriously hammy Czernobog with his bloody sledgehammer, now reduced to killing cattle to get his fix.
Ranged against these Old Gods are the New Gods, who are on the rise: think internet, media, finance. These are the figures who Americans now worship. Gillian Anderson is the dangerously seductive New God of Media, and we can also look forward to Crispin Glover as Mr World.
So do you need to read the book first to understand American Gods? Some reviewers think so – the American ones in particular are concerned that viewers just won’t “get” it, that they won’t understand what’s going on without having it explicitly spelled out for them.
So in a very scientific test we cornered someone who’d never read American Gods and made him watch the first two episodes. Instead of demanding to know what was going on, he just demanded to watch the rest of the series.
The thing is, even in the novel you are left in the dark a lot of the time – and that’s okay. In fact it’s actually kind of the point. Mr Wednesday tells Shadow he’ll be getting no clues (that’s not part of the deal), so our protagonist becomes our naive guide in a world where nothing makes sense. You just have to have patience that everything will reveal itself in time.
My only concern, actually, when I heard American Gods was being adapted for TV was that the visuals wouldn’t do justice to Gaiman’s imagination and his vivid powers of description. How do you film a god who’s simultaneously an elderly African man and a tarantula? Or a sex goddess consuming a bloke with her vagina until he is snuggled ecstatically within her chest? It works on the page, but on screen there was a risk it would lose the magic.
That’s something showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green have masterfully managed to avoid, with the kind of visual effects that a New God like Technical Boy would surely enjoy and Media would give her stamp of approval. Adding to the sense of unreality is the hyper-stylised, super-saturated way this series has been filmed: everything close up, the blood a Tarantino-style bright red, the thunderstorms completely over the top.
It fits, because from Shadow’s point of view the whole thing is like a fever dream. After the sudden loss of his wife Laura and the revelation that she died with his best friend’s dick in her mouth, nothing feels real any more and he is thrust into the middle of someone else’s nightmare.
Some critics have said that Shadow is so externally passive that he comes across as one-dimensional, losing his wife and then immediately forgetting about it. I think this does no justice to the acting skills of Ricky Whittle, or the way Laura Moon’s death hangs over the whole series (it can’t help but hang, seeing as death doesn’t keep Laura in her grave). There’s a scene where he empties out the house he shared with Laura, and scrubs the floor so hard there is blood in the soap suds from the hands he has rubbed raw. Fuller and Green stay true to Shadow’s introverted character and the principle of “show, don’t tell”.
Also, to Fuller and Green’s credit, they have stayed true to the story, rather than chopping and changing to make their own mark.
Sure, there have been Gaiman-approved upgrades. The novel was published back in 2001, but since then the New Gods have evolved. Technical Boy in the original was a spotty, fat kid – the embodiment of a nerdy basement dweller. 16 years later he has become a thin, trendy young man with a sneer and a lot more tech at his fingertips. When he kidnaps Shadow it’s a virtual abduction where he can conjure up faceless sidekicks and emerge from a pixelated world, adding to the sense of unreality.
All in all, American Gods does justice to Neil Gaiman’s novel – and as long as viewers are prepared to be a little patient, it should reveal itself as one of the best TV series of 2017.
American Gods launches on Amazon Prime Video on Monday 1st May, with new episodes following weekly. Episodes will air on US channel Starz on Sunday nights.