The American Gods Series Premiere is a Hyperviolent Spectacle

American Gods Series Premiere, The Bone Orchard Plot Summary:

Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle ) is released early from prison only to find that his wife Laura (Emily Browning) has died. With no life to return to, he agrees to work for the enigmatic con man Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), who drags him into a strange and supernatural world.

Neil Gaiman’s award-winning novel has had a somewhat fraught transition from page to screen. It began in 2011 when HBO expressed an interest in adapting it, and the show is only coming out now on Starz, six years and a completely different production staff (besides Gaiman himself) later.

Fans of the novel would be justified in feeling apprehensive about this shift in channel in particular; while HBO certainly has its own well-deserved reputation as a purveyor of sex and violence, Starz is its much shlockier and more gratuitous cousin. Which is not to criticize Starz’s stylistic choices, mind you. Shows like Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Ash vs. Evil Dead have leaned into this quality and made highly entertaining, campy experiences. It just doesn’t necessarily fit with the more measured and thoughtful tone of the source novel in a way that could be cause for concern.

At first, it seems like these fears have been realized. The show opens with a scene of vikings arriving in the Americas after an arduous journey, only to commit ever more extreme sacrifices to Odin so he will grant them the wind they need to leave this harsh and unforgiving land. The problem is that these sacrifices, as well as the hardships they face, are depicted with the same ultraviolence as many other Starz shows, and it is, frankly, too silly to be taken seriously.

We’re meant to be struck by the brutality of the sacrifices being offered: cutting out their own eyes, burning one of their number on a pyre, slaughtering each other in combat. Yet when these include rivers of bright-red CGI blood and a man’s head exploding after a single blow, it becomes more comical than anything else. The visuals contrast far too much with the intent, and it feels like perhaps Starz was the wrong choice.

Yet once we get past this opening, it turns out that Starz’s gonzo sensibilities are a way better fit for American Gods than it seemed. As the supernatural begins to intrude on Shadow’s life, the otherworldly nature of it all is emphasized by the crazy CGI constructs that populate his encounters. From a dream where Shadow is commanded to “Believe” by an ox with burning eyes in an orchard of bones to his abduction into the limo of the high-tech and hypermodern Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), these scenes are all enhanced by a willingness to go for broke.

And there are certainly scenes in the original novel that do need this treatment. A famous sequence from the book involves an ancient fertility goddess literally devouring a man while demanding he worship her during sex. There is simply no way to accurately adapt this without going all out, and the show makes it as mesmerizing, bizarre, and horrifying as it was in the novel. Even small touches, like skyward transitions edited to seem like one take and the increasingly elaborate coin tricks of leprechaun Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) benefit from a stylistic embrace of excess.

Not only does that excess work better than the opening scene would imply, the show manages to include new material that seamlessly fits into the world. An encounter between Shadow and his also dead best friend’s wife Audrey (Betty Gilpin) in the graveyard where both of their spouses have just been buried is a particularly excellent new addition. Earlier, she had revealed to him that their spouses were engaged in a long-term affair while he was in prison, and now she interrupts him processing his grief and pain over his wife’s death and betrayal.

Audrey is clearly a wreck, practically drunk with rage and sadness, rambling on about the myriad small bits of revenge she’s taken since her husband’s death. It all leads up to her clumsily insisting she and Shadow sleep together as payback, a proposal that a still-dumbstruck Shadow quietly and kindly refuses. Her advances rejected, the two simply hold each other, weeping over what they have lost and learned, providing the comfort they both desperately need. It would have been easy to turn this into a typical gratuitous scene, but instead it becomes something much more powerful, and by far one of the best scenes of the episode.

Those are the main highlights, but it would be a shame to close out this review without giving a single mention to Ian McShane’s Mr. Wednesday. Of the two main characters introduced here, Ricky Whittle does an excellent job as the friendly but hard-edged and taciturn Shadow, but it’s McShane who really steals the show. Wednesday is, first and foremost, a con man, someone who never ceases to be charming even while remaining as gruff and sleazy as they come. It’s a pretty tough act to balance, but McShane nails it. The difference between his first and second appearances alone, first pretending to be a senile old man to finagle an upgrade to a first class plane seat and then knocking back Jack and Cokes while confidently informing the stewardess that she won’t be taking his drink, do a fine job of showcasing McShane’s chops. It should be fun to see what else he can bring to the character in episodes to come.

The closing of the episode, when Shadow is saved from certain death at the hands of Technical Boy’s goons by parties yet unknown, suggests that the show’s problem with comical ultraviolence won’t be going away any time soon. Yet the other aspects are so strong that one can forgive their overindulgence on this front. As thoughtful as the novel may have been, it was still a grandiose tale of conflict between gods, and the spectacle the show utilizes really does help throw that into stark relief. If they can balance that out with some more surprisingly raw material like they managed in the graveyard scene with Shadow and Audrey, book fans and newcomers alike will have plenty of reasons to be happy.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Chris Diggins is a staff writer and incorrigible layabout for The Pop Break. He usually reviews TV and movies, although he sometimes writes ludicrously long pieces of critical analysis and badgers the editors to publish it. He cannot be stopped.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Chris – have you ever watched Hannibal? I took the violence of that as more of a stylistic choice by creator Bryan Fuller than a tactic (not the right word) by Starz. I agree with the majority of the review (superbly written as always), but I really thought that graveyard scene needed to be trimmed down. I felt it went on way too long, and was kind of absurdly dramatic. Excited to see what the series holds!

    • I’ve never seen Hannibal, so it’s possible I’m ascribing too much to the channel when I should be focusing more on Bryan Fuller’s choices. I can see getting worn out by the graveyard scene, and at first I would have agreed that it was too melodramatic, but as it kept going on and she continued to dissolve into ever more desperate expressions of anger and grief, I found myself more and more enthralled. It was over the top, like the rest of the episode, but it really built well into an expression of anguish that got to me. But your mileage, as always, may vary.

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