After a short stretch in prison, all gentle giant Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) wants to do is get back to his Indiana home town and pick up where he left off with his loving wife, Laura (Emily Browning). Her death in a car accident scuppers those plans, and with his whole life ripped out from under him he sees no reason not to take a job as bodyguard and general dogsbody to Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane, and hallelujah for that), a mysterious itinerant conman. That decision leads Shadow into a weird underground world of fallen gods and strange magic – a world that is gearing up for a war between the Old Gods and the New.
That is, at least, the overall conceit, but whether your average viewer can pick up what American Gods is putting down might depend on whether they’re familiar with the source novel by Neil Gaiman or, indeed, his broader body of work. In its first episode at least, American Gods gives up its secrets reluctantly, and while there are clues aplenty layered into the dense pilot, there are also surprises that would be a shame to spoil.
Still, there are enough pieces in play to get a sense of the show’s ambition and general direction. A hilariously bloody opening that sees a shipful of Vikings chopping each other into sashimi sets up the notion of immigrant populations bringing their own gods to America, and subsequent scenes leave us in no doubt that those gods are still around, eking out a living in what Tom Waits once called the warm, wet, narcotic American night. We only meet a couple in this first outing. There’s Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), a love goddess who lives on the worship of her romantic conquests, and Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), a pugnacious Irishman who claims to be a leprechaun and can produce gold coins out of thin air.
And there’s Mr. Wednesday himself, whose identity is heavily hinted at without being stated outright (a quick perusal of Gaiman’s latest, Norse Mythology, might be in order). His agenda is similarly opaque at this stage. Indeed, American Gods is pulling as much from noir tradition as from the various mythologies that Gaiman is famous for remixing – if you look at Shadow as a kind of hulking Philip Marlowe going down these mean and magical streets, you’re not too far off. At one point he even gets shanghaied by the opposition for a limousine-backseat interrogation by one of their number, computer spirit Technical Boy (Bruce Langley).
We don’t learn much about Technical Boy and his pantheon yet, and that is as it should be – a few more episodes like this, and you’ll either be praying for an info-dump or overwhelmingly grateful there hasn’t been one yet. The world of American Gods is a strange and sorcerous one, and as viewers we should be on the backfoot to some degree, looking for meaning and causality in a place that runs on older and stranger rules, where symbols mean more than objects, and dreams are as real as waking life.
All of it is packaged in a gorgeously rich and dark visual package, as you would expect from showrunners Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (Gotham), not to mention pilot director David Slade (30 Days of Night). The show has been production-designed to within an inch of its life, but with the narrative’s emphasis on signs and portents in mind, that makes perfect sense – on some level this thing is all about finding a signal in the noise of the mundane world, and presenting an ordered, readable and, lest we forget, darkly beautiful version of the world underlines that theme.
As a first step into a weirder, wider world, the pilot for American Gods is the business. This promises to be a rich, resonant, haunting series, in the way you hope every urban fantasy show is. What puts it ahead of the pack is that it takes itself seriously. So many series in this vein hedge their bets, winking at the audience about the ludicrousness of their premise. It’s something Joss Whedon was able to pull off with his Buffyverse, but almost no other creator has managed the trick since. American Gods, while not without humour, goes in the other direction, shooting for weirdness and awe. Our first meeting with Bilquis will probably be the litmus test for most viewers: whether that sequence strikes you as amazing or preposterous will tell you whether this series is for you.
It’s certainly for us. If this high note is maintained, American Gods is liable to be the best urban fantasy series since, well, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If it can avoid the Fuller Curse, whereby the erstwhile showrunner tends to get his series’ cancelled out from under him by the powers that be, we should be in for a hell of a trip.
American Gods will premiere on Amazon Prime Video on May 1, 2017. Customers who are not already Amazon Prime Video members can sign up for a free 7-day trial at PrimeVideo.com.