American Gods is violent, gory, sexual, grimy and eccentric.
It’s also one of the most beautiful, sensual and invigorating new television series that takes every aspect of show-running Bryan Fuller is known for and accentuates it. American Gods is a courageous beast; not just for taking on one of the most beloved Neil Gaiman novels of all time, but because a large part of it isn’t designed to please most audiences. American Gods is weird for the sake of being weird, experimental for the sake of seeing how far boundaries can be pushed before they snap completely.
I imagine American Gods will have two groups of curious viewers from the first episode: Those who want to see what can be done with Gaiman’s pointed, revered series and those who are dedicated fans of Fuller’s previous work, most notably Hannibal. Starz, the network carrying the series, must have felt the same way because American Gods does a pretty good job of pleasing both camps. Those who are worried the network may have toned down the source material for the adaptation, and those concerned the network toned down Fuller’s remarkably explicit stylings, can both rest assured Starz does no such thing.
American Gods is a faithful adaptation; any changes the show makes are only to its advantage. Certain characters, like Technical Boy, have been changed completely to mirror the modern era of the show’s setting. This isn’t 2001 anymore, and Fuller takes extraordinary measures to ensure that the beliefs of the new gods and the way they cloak themselves match the trends and aesthetics of 2017.
It’s in the general aesthetic of the show and the vivid visual effects that American Gods finds its beauty — which, again, won’t come as a surprise to those who have stuck with Fuller throughout his career or even devoted themselves to Hannibal when it was on. I’ll get into it further a little later, but Fuller is a stylistic genius who manages to turn the macabre and unsavory into a stimulating experience. Your nerve ends are electrified because of the images that appear on screen, and although there are numerous sexual scenes, it never feels pornographic. As only Fuller can, there’s an artistry to every scene.
American Gods, based on the four episodes that were sent to critics, could be one of Fuller’s best, least-censored series he’s ever made, but the question remains how successful it will be considering it is, in no way meant to please the majority of those watching it.
American Gods stays true to its source material, but feels far more modern
American Gods in many ways feels like an antiquated idea, but as Fuller focuses his attention on how technology, the media and our obsession with both disrupt our society, it also manages to come across more relevant than ever. The main story, like in the book, follows the centuries-long build up of tension between old gods and new. The old gods, led by Wednesday (Ian McShane), are disgusted by the new gods’ (Technical Boy, Media) obsession with materialism and sex, and the war is ready to surface.
In the four episodes that we received from Starz, storylines and characters have changed, but unfortunately much more can’t be said ahead of the release of each episode. What’s more striking than the changes, however, is how Fuller makes each change seem important and necessary. Adapting a book for a series can be complicated — especially when the source material is justifiably difficult story to tell in the first place — but Fuller nails every aspect of it.
Fuller skillfully uses American Gods’ central story to expand other unexplored stories in the canon. Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittles) acts as a pathway between Wednesday, Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), Mr. World (Crispin Glover) and the newer gods like the aforementioned Technical Boy and Media. Shadow Moon is our guiding light; through his eyes we learn about the existence — and the catastrophic relationships among the gods — that were once thought to be nothing more than mythical rumblings from centuries past.
Fuller should be commended for tying together all of American Gods’ various stories into one cohesive show. He doesn’t spend time isolating each god for too long and that works to creating a series instead of one-off episodes. This isn’t an episodic show and Fuller doesn’t treat its characters as such. A perfect example is how Fuller constantly reminds the audience of Shadow Moon’s dead wife, Laura (Emily Browning), never letting them forget her when she’s off-screen.
American Gods, although not quite as good as Hannibal, is some of Fuller's strongest work. It’s very obvious from the opening shot that American Gods is the story he's meant to tell.
Let Fuller do what Fuller does best
Fuller is at his strongest when nothing is being said and he allows his artistry to speak for itself. One of the most exquisite moments in the season happens at the very end of the first episode; I can’t reveal much about it other than it’s a perfect example of how Fuller will approach grotesque gore in American Gods.
Those who watched Hannibal may recall scenes where Hannibal is cooking and how sensual the moments were, despite their disturbing context. Fuller does similar things with American Gods, using an almost cartoonish, exaggerated aesthetic to make the gore feel less exploitive. It works to the show’s advantage. Everything about American Gods is larger than life, which includes scenes featuring Bilquis’ lovemaking, but it never feels like the show is exploiting Gaiman’s stranger material.
Remarkably, it almost feels like Fuller is holding back. The second episode’s opening scene could have pushed further and gotten away with it, but it didn’t. American Gods deals with sensitive materials and Fuller seems to know just how how far to push the needle while respecting his actors, their characters and the source material.
Fuller’s narrative brilliance deserves strong actors, and American Gods has a fantastic cast. All are spectacular, but Gillian Anderson (Media) and McShane (Mr. Wednesday) in particular are phenomenal. As gods, they’re charming and confident, selling their roles from their first moment on screen. McShane in particular seems to embody his character, almost as if Mr. Wednesday has always been an extension of his true self.
I went into American Gods with few expectations — even as someone who has loved Fuller since Pushing Daisies — but I’m delighted that American Gods exceeded all of them, and I’m sure it’ll do the same for you, too.
American Gods premieres on Starz at 9 p.m. ET on April 30.