[At SXSW 2017, we screened the first episode of the upcoming Starz series American Gods, based on the Neil Gaiman novel. Here are our thoughts.]
SXSW 2017 – Shadow Moon is a man alone. His life is returned, but his life is gone. He’s got a plan all set up, but no one’s available to help him with it.
Lucky for Shadow, it’s Wednesday.
It’s no spoiler to tell you that about the protagonist of a 16-year-old book. What I can’t tell you, however, is why. American Gods Episode 1.1 “The Bone Orchard,” the pilot of the new STARZ show based on Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name, is full of characters that are suffering from difficult-to-explain juxtapositions. Rather that frustrate viewers, however, that fact about the show is sure to intrigue; to provide an alluring mist not too different than the white curls of smoke wafting from the white buffalo’s eyes in the series’ trailer before the beast telepathically utters: Believe.
While STARZ has done a good job of getting their hands on exquisitely produced period show adaptations or re-imaginings like Outlander and Black Sails, American Gods represents something new for them. Period work, whether it’s fantasy as in HBO’s Game of Thrones or Outlander, or based on real events like AMC’s Turn, can become overwhelmingly Eurocentric. American Gods, while conceived and written by a European, is refreshingly not. Gaiman’s story begins by wrapping itself around the customs and traditions of the many cultures that built America into the nation it is today, and continues by expanding on the American story, focusing on how we, as a society, build new types of faith into our cultural movements and institutions. Do we worship media? Celebrity? Sex? Do we understand how the tales of Anansi play into our everyday lives or how Jewish stories of Golems inform our most advanced tech efforts? Do the social forces of the myriad cultures native to America have influence over the way we see the world today? Gaiman’s American Gods would answer all of those questions with a resounding ‘yes,’ and the pilot STARZ screened on last month at SXSW in Austin, TX, gave viewers a hint of that world, and how intricate, delicate, and beautiful American culture is.
As Geeks Of Doom’s Tom Cheredar remarked after watching the pilot at the show’s SXSW panel in March, American Gods is fundamentally a story about immigration in and to America, at a time when America has a less than cohesive view about immigrants. Similarly, it’s set in a dull Midwestern landscape, one that Gaiman describes in chapter two of the book as being unrecognizable to a man that had been there just three years before:
…more stoplights, unfamiliar storefronts. They drove downtown. Shadow asked Wednesday to slow as they drove past the Muscle Farm. CLOSED INDEFINITELY, said the hand-lettered sign on the door, DUE TO BEREAVEMENT.
Left on Main Street. Past a new tattoo parlour and the Armed Forces Recruitment Center, then the Burger King, and, familiar and unchanged, Olsen’s Drug Store, then the yellow-brick facade of Wendell’s Funeral Parlor. A neon sign in the fron window said ‘House of Rest.’ Blank tombstones stood unchristened and uncarved in the window beneath the sign.
It’s no secret that Gaiman’s melancholic description is one that Americans have ruminated on quite a bit of late. How we think about our land shapes it. How we keep it in our hearts determines how we make choices about it in the future. How we see home – its virtues and its disadvantages. The pilot is authentic to this view that such faith is at the heart of authenticity, and it’s pleasing, even if the topic isn’t pleasant.
While keeping things authentic in shows like The White Queen presents its own difficult and unique challenges, American Gods requires the producers, actors, and showrunners to push not only the authenticity, but the growth of older traditions, their modernization and the way their meanings change to audiences in a way that both seems familiar and ancient. It’s an incredible task, and producers Bryan Fuller and Michael Green do so with aplomb. Seeing two men take three drinks to seal a deal seems fun, but it’s eerily reminiscent of men sharing a horn of ale to swear an oath.
It’s within these mundane acts that the STARZ production tends to transfix viewers. Yes — a coin trick may be more than just a trick, and a coin may be more than just a coin, but a drunken Audrey, crushed by the shame of her husband’s affair, and the guilt any victim of infidelity feels, is the sort of mundane drama that makes this fantastic show work. As actress Betty Gilpin presses herself against Ricky Whittle’s Shadow, her despair, her anger, and the way she bobs back and forth between the most basic of women, and one who would do unspeakable things atop a grave, throws chills down the viewer’s spine. There’s no way to magically help her feelings. There’s no power in the world that can give her answers. There’s only the slow crawl of moving through time and managing pain that will solve her problems. And while it’s heart-wrenching and cringe-worthy to watch, it only draws the viewer’s emotions there because Gilpin’s ability to portray this drunk, emotional wreck is beyond belief.
Transitions between moments like these and other, less concrete interactions are often abrupt, but somehow they work. There’s a fluidity to the segment-focused editing that the American Gods producers have created. There’s an odd efficiency to it.
The visuals of the show are as quirky as Gaiman described them in his written work. Coin tricks are immersive, and grounds swallow up coins. Flashbacks and dreams are weird, but somehow grounded. Time is sometimes hard to grasp. They’ve managed to capture some of the best bits of Gaiman. What’s more is that the cast and crew panel after the screening revealed that while the show will cover the events of the book, the creators have been given leave to include tales from other related Gaiman works, like the Anansi Boys. Welcome to the GaimanVerse.
Like so many great televised tales, American Gods introduces viewers to characters outside of context, forcing them to lean in and listen for any clues, any inkling of how these new bodies tie into the larger story. Are they friend? Or foe? Because while it’s refreshingly clear that there are two distinct sides to the major conflict of this story; what’s less clear is what exactly they stand for, and why they stand for it. What is clear is that Shadow stands in the center. He’s balanced as Whittle plays him: brawny but not without a brain. Young, but long rinsed free of the bath of innocence, and steeped in quite a bit of rage.
We’ll find out if that’s enough to keep Shadow alive in the story that unfolds.
Starring Ricky Whittle, Ian McShane, Emily Browning, Orlando Jones, Corbin Bernsen, Kristin Chenoweth, Cloris Leachman, Pablo Schreiber, Gillian Anderson, Crispin Glover, and more, American Gods premieres on Starz on April 30, 2017, with Season 1 running for eight episodes.
Be on the lookout each Monday during the season for Geeks of Doom’s American Gods podcast, The Dominant Paradigm.