You’ve probably heard quite a bit of buzz about the forthcoming big-budget television adaptation of American Gods coming to Starz this April, but unless you’re a fan of author Neil Gaiman himself, it’s likely you aren’t prepared for the onslaught of fandom that will come when the show debuts.
I say this having just finished the premiere screening of the pilot at SXSW 2017 in Austin, TX along with nearly the entire cast — most of whom seemed visibly more excited having just witnessed everything they’d been involved in come together on screen.
As a primer, American Gods was originally a novel written by Gaiman way back in 2001. The plot follows a group of old gods and deities, worshiped by immigrants who came to America long ago, now finding themselves vying for a fight with new, more modern “American gods.” The story begins with lead character Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) on the day he’s released from prison, which tragically is the same day he’s informed that his wife Laura Moon (Emily Browning) has passed away. The tale then follows Shadow as he makes his way to a funeral, meeting the rather odd character known as Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane). Other mythical figures featured in the pilot episode include goddess of love Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), leprechaun Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), Low Key (Loki, get it?) Lyesmith (Jonathan Tucker), and Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), among others.
If the pilot is any indication, American Gods will be a perfect mix of spirituality, culture, technology, action, sex, and magic. Even for diehard fans of the book, the show was described as a giant bag of “reveals” with so many twists and turns that you won’t see what’s coming. I thoroughly enjoyed the mix of dream sequences intertwined with scenes that advanced the story forward. And while many premium cable network shows often work in kinky or highly sexual situations, what appears in the first episode of American Gods didn’t feel like a cheap gimmick to generate attention. (The one sex scene we did see, involving Badaki, felt both graphic and tasteful, while remaining firmly tied to the character building of Bilquis.)
[American Gods Cast Panel SXSW 2017/]
And even though there is quite a bit of mystical, metaphorical imagery that you’d expect from a show like Game of Thrones, American Gods is able to work in technology and VR environments in a way that feels sudden but not forced. Technology Boy in the book is portrayed as sort of an overweight internet troll, which isn’t the case in the show. It’s a refreshing change (at least I think), as that stereotype about Internet personalities seems a bit outdated in the 15+ years since the book’s debut — meaning that the average Internet trolls very likely blend into a crowds of a variety of random people these days.
While the basic premise of the book focused much on the role of spirituality as seen from outside of America, showrunner Bryan Fuller said the television version ended up spending more time plucking from the tumultuous narratives that have been in the media over the last year.
“It’s definitely a different show than we set out to make because the political climate in America… shat its pants,” Fuller said during the panel, garnering laughter from the crowd. “So we are telling massive immigration stories in a climate that vilifies immigrants, and we now have a strange new platform to start to start a different kind of discussion.”
Despite that assessment, I didn’t once feel as if I was watching the collective efforts of someone’s political agenda. However, since the show is centered around various god-like beings taken from other cultures, the diversity of the entire cast (and maaaan is it an all-star cast) almost by default allows for subtle nods to an immigration-like perspective.
“One of the things that was exciting for us in casting the show was that so much of the book is based on cultures and ethnicities, which gave us an opportunity to not be colorblind in our casting,” Fuller said. “It was great working with Neil because he was very adamant about every actor that we cast be representative of characters in the book.” Any discussion of casting actors that were not representative was quickly shot down, giving Green and Fuller the ability to create a crop of faces that accurately represented America.
Another big change in the television adaptation is the much stronger presence of female characters, which was almost out of necessity. Fuller, along with fellow showrunner Michael Green, described the book’s narrative as being mostly a “sausage party,” which actually ended up as a benefit from a storytelling perspective.
“It gave us a chance to explore these characters and present unique perspectives,” Green said.
Arguably one of the most convincingly emotional performances of the first episode came from Betty Gilpin, who plays Audrey, the wife of Shadow’s friend Robbie (Dane Cook). Her character is going through a very similar experience as Shadow when we see her on screen, but handling it not nearly as well. Gilpin said in the book Audrey is seen but not heard, while her portrayal adds more color.
The same is true for Shadow’s wife Laura Moon, who actress Browning described as initially not really believing in anything — only to become a huge believer in her husband as the show progresses. Laura sort of becomes a “slightly awful guardian angel,” Browning said.
American Gods premieres April 30, 2017 on Starz network. However, if you’re too curious to wait that long and want more details, then stay tuned to Geeks of Doom for a full review of the show from our very own Dwayne De Freitas. And if you’re curious about what Starz is doing to generate excitement, check out our coverage of the American Gods giant scary smoking-eyed white buffalo display at SXSW.