I've read Neil Gaiman's "American Gods," but long ago enough in the past that I don't remember most of the details. I feel this was the best way to go into the new Bryan Fuller and Michael Green adaptation, which expands significantly on the material. The first season of eight episodes only covers roughly a third of the book, covering basic introductions of all the main characters and getting the ball rolling on bigger conflicts to come. For those unfamiliar with "American Gods," however, the show functions like an anthology of different stories about this peculiar universe, and a pretty uneven one, I'm sorry to say. Still, the good parts are good, and there's every indication that the show can improve considerably.
The basic conceit of the "American Gods" universe is that gods exist, and when various groups immigrated to America over time, they brought their gods with them. However, times are tough for the gods who originated in the old world, and many are largely forgotten, eking out a modest existence sustained by the few bits of belief they can still muster. One of these old gods, who introduces himself as Wednesday (Ian McShane), finagles a recently released ex-con named Shadow (Ricky Whittle), to accompany him on a cross-country mission to recruit other old gods for a coming war against America's new gods - flashy young upstarts like the Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) and Media (Gillian Anderson).
The road trip narrative makes for a very leisurely, incidental show that doesn't really build up much momentum as Wednesday and Shadow have encounters with various gods like Czernobog (Peter Stromare) and Vulcan (Corbin Bersen), and other mythological creatures like the six-foot tall leprechaun Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) and a Jinn (Mousa Kraish). Most episodes include "Coming to America" segments, little vignettes that show how gods like Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones) first came to America in the past, or there are interludes showing how the old gods have transformed over the years, and how they interact with mankind in the present day. Other memorable figures include the fertility goddess Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), an Egyptian god who goes by Mr. Jacquel (Chris Obi), and Easter (Kristin Chenoweth).
The pacing of the series is all over the place, and more impatient viewers might worry that there are whole episodes devoted to minor characters, and big questions often go unanswered for a very long time, but exposition dumps and rushed encounters are common. While some of the vignettes are excellent, others can drag or seem pointless. It doesn't help that Bryan Fuller is still indulging in some of the bad habits he picked up during "Hannibal," using hyperstylized visuals, discordant music, and superfluous, surreal, dream imagery to excess. There's a flame-eyed bison that is a little too reminiscent of the "Hannibal" stag. It has to be said, however, that this is the series with the best production values I've seen all year. The visual work is fabulous, the casting is almost totally perfect across the board, and the many, many special effects shots are beautifully realized. The show's ambitions are very impressive, especially the way it's committed to showing the audience things that no one else in television is.
Alas, a major weak spot in the cast is our lead, Ricky Whittle, which isn't helped by the fact that he shares so many scenes with Ian McShane, who is charisma personified. Shadow is actually much stronger here than the quiet, anonymous figure he was in the book, but Whittle isn't helping as much as he could. However, as with everything else in this show, I can see him improving considerably over time. Another big change is that Shadow's deceased wife Laura (Emily Browning) is now a major player in her own right, and a considerable chunk of the narrative follows her instead of Shadow. She's a pretty good character, but I worry that the show's creators have Laura shouldering more than she can handle. Having Browning also play a second, minor character, was not a good idea.
By the last episode "American Gods" does coalesce into something mostly cohesive and intriguing, but like last year's "Preacher," it takes an awful lot of patience and faith for the show to get to that point. I think that the good far outweighs the bad, however, and there wasn't a single installment that didn't offer up some surprising delight, from Mad Sweeney's odd partnership with Laura, to Wednesday wooing a Slavic goddess played by Cloris Leachman, to Media manifesting as a vulgar Lucille Ball to Shadow. With a lot of sex scenes, an unconventional format, and so much surreal, high concept fantasy involved, "American Gods" will inevitably be a niche show.
However, it's so often so perfect at what it wants to be, I can also see this easily becoming a cult show too. Pun intended.