I am late. I am late and I am penitent. I waited with all of the patience of exactly no patience for American Gods to start, and when it finally happened, when it finally came, I was rapturous and dumb. And so I am late. I can promise with about 87 percent certainty that it won’t happen again, but I will grant you that it is not the most auspicious start. Forgive me this, and I’ll forgive you one. Let’s say I have that power.
For those unacquainted, American Gods is savant and hero-of-the-people Bryan Fuller’s take on the much beloved Neil Gaiman novel. I first read the novel ten years ago, in my sophomore year of college, and have read it once a year since. So know this; I am wildly biased. In addition, Bryan Fuller owns every beat of my heart; I have run through Hannibal and Pushing Daisies far too many times and can say with absolute certainty will continue to until they pry the DVDs from my cold, dead fingers. Maybe even after. The only hope of giving unbiased reviews would be openly lying, and I am not prepared to do that. I will, however, strive for accuracy. This is my accord with you.
So let’s get right into it! There are a great deal of characters within this world, and perhaps the best way to parse the essence of the show is simply by introducing each of our contestants. Starting with Shadow Moon…
Shadow Moon, as played by Ricky Whittle (who I had no previous experience with but am now, officially and entirely, 100 percent on board with), is in prison. The reasons for his incarceration are not detailed yet, and it seems incongruous. Shadow is quiet , thoughtful, polite. He keeps his head down and treads softly. He is a bit of a cipher. The one thing we know about him swiftly and assuredly is that he deeply loves his wife…
Laura Moon, circa episode one, we know even less about. Other than, in a very perverse way, she is the inciting incident. Shadow’s sentence is cut short because Laura dies in what turns out to be quite possibly the most damaging way possible. On his way to her funeral, Shadow runs across…
Mr. Wednesday. Which, yes, seems like an absurd name, but really, when compared to the name Shadow Moon (a name which practically screams “I’m a metaphor!” This might be a bit problematic, were it not that Wednesday almost immediately lampshades it, drawing attention to the fundamental ridiculousness of it) it’s just fine. Mr. Wednesday is a ludicrously charismatic con man who pops into Shadow’s life with the offer of strong man/bodyguard/buddy comedy partner work, and also, no big deal, but if he happens to die, Shadow gets to hold his vigil, the lucky devil. Shadow puts up an appropriate amount of fight, but eventually concedes, only to be tested in combat with…
Mad Sweeney. A comically tall, very drunk leprechaun with distinct anger issues and a penchant for coin tricks. And keep your eyes on the shiny, friends, because coin tricks and the sleight of hand they represent will show up often.
After fighting Mad Sweeney, Shadow runs afoul of…
Technical Boy and his incredibly improbable hair. Technical Boy is a new god, a manifestation of the things that we worship now. His minions rough Shadow up, culminating in them hanging him from a tree. Shadow is a black man, and it is impossible not to see the haunting significance in this scene, played out in the American south. “Strange Fruit” is not playing in the background, but it is present in the mind.
An interstitial scene of Bilquis, the goddess of love, allows for the first televised eating by vagina I am aware of, and yes, that sounds absolutely impossible, but also, yes, it is pulled off perfectly – owing as much to Yetide Badaki’s complete focus and commitment as to David Slade’s deft direction. I cannot say enough good things about her performance. She is a star.
Of slightly less immediate significance is Audrey, the grief struck widow of Shadow’s best friend, Robbie. It turns out that Robbie and Laura died together in a car wreck – precipitated by the fact that Laura was administering an ill-timed blow-job to Robbie while he was driving. Audrey could easily have been a caricature of substance abuse and despair, but goddamn, in Betty Gilpin’s hands she is a heartbreak.
Two more characters and we’re caught up, so stick with me now.
Low Key Lyesmith (say it out loud, you’ll get it) is Shadow’s former prison friend, doling out good advice about how not to treat airport staff and providing a sounding board for Shadow’s more philosophical musings.
And Mr. Ibis (Demore Barnes, mostly a voice right now, but c’mon, what a voice!) narrates an opening battles of Vikings who are trying to sate an angry, vengeful god.
There is a great deal to unpack within the confines of the first episode. There is an omnipresent sense of a sharp and rapid wit that helps to break through some of the despair. Shadow feels much fuller on the screen than he did on the page – some of that is how beautifully he is written, and much of it is how humane Ricky Whittle is. But too, his interactions with Wednesday have an incredible amount of heavy lifting to do, by way of showing us Shadow. He is a shade to contrast. And he is Ian fucking McShane. Once, years before I knew anything of the impending show, I told a friend that the only person I could ever really visualize as Wednesday was Ian McShane, and subsequently lost my damn mind when it was announced he would play the role. He brings Al Swearengen’s sense of gallows humor and authority to the part, along with an impish gleam of fun. But there has not been a miscast note yet; I have a certain hesitation about the future introduction of Robbie (presumably via flashback) as he is played by Dane Cook, but I will trust in Bryan Fuller, as I always have in the past.
And make no mistake; American Gods feels like a Bryan Fuller show. It is beautiful and funny and sad. Thoughtful and a tiny bit pretentious. It is fine with knowing its audience and giving them the best possible version of what they want – what they need, even, because an audience doesn’t always know what is best for them. Bryan does, and he and Michael Green are the only hands I would truly trust this adaptation with.
It’s going to get weird, guys. It’s going to get busy. And intense. And funny. But I’m all in, and also highly and entirely jazzed.
Join me Monday for episode two, and I’ll introduce you to my good friend, Mr. Nancy.