Hit or Sh**: STARZ’s AMERICAN GODS

In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.

american gods

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2017’s new #aesthetic show is here and Sunday night’s getting crowded again. Clocking in this week is Starz’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel AMERICAN GODS. The property had a rough road to its premiere—the option spent a few years at HBO during which, in the illustrious words of their president of programming, “we tried,” and since then it’s landed at Starz with A-list showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green. Sunday night’s pilot, “The Bone Orchard,” demonstrates that the series to come will be a vivid showpiece of genre mashing that keeps itself together with well-executed dialogue, spot-on casting, and stunning visuals. AMERICAN GODS paints a new kind of Americana and, in doing so, a new kind of TV show. It probably shouldn’t work, but it does.

GODS follows Shadow Moon (THE 100’s Ricky Whittle—who will never again have to be referred to as “THE 100’s Ricky Whittle”) as he’s released from prison looking to reunite with his wife (Emily Browning), but instead gets wrapped up into stranger-turned-employer Mr. Wednesday’s (Ian McShane) world of the gods as they prepare for a war. Shadow’s world starts strange and gets stranger, and with this TV adaptation, viewers are invited along for a trip down the rabbit hole. Gaiman’s use of imagery and symbolism in the novel lend themselves extremely well to television, and frankly make it easier for viewers to follow and enjoy putting together the puzzle. I hesitate to call anything Fuller and Green have done previously as “restrained,” but GODS has certainly let them off the leash. The pilot is extremely graphic—you’re going to see a guy’s spine ripped out of his body, a scorned woman ask for a very specific kind of revenge sex, multiple decapitations, and a woman devour a man via her vagina. Whatever’s happening, you’re watching it in full force.

american gods woman

If your show doesn’t feature a man-eating vagina I’m not sure it’s worth my time anymore

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Woven throughout Shadow and Wednesday’s road trip are sequences entitled “Coming to America” and “Somewhere in America,” which show how the old gods came here and how they’re living today, respectively. Episode one tackles a Norse war god, demanding blood in exchange for the travelers’ survival, and the current affairs of Bilquis, a fertility goddess who requires a little more than just blood as tribute. While some were surprised to find That Scene in the pilot (let alone having it remain in the show at all), it was actually promised to viewers back when news initially broke of the greenlight deal, and gave most people high hopes for the adaptation’s faithfulness to the novel. Additionally, That Scene works to let viewers know that this show has no plans for a less-is-more approach. After a slew of understated slow-moving dramas, I’m excited for AMERICAN GODS to bring its brand of maximalism to the screen.

american gods boy

Making “Technology Boy” look like a sentient Reddit comment and having him vape is Fuller and Green’s way of dragging the internet with production design and I’m very here for it

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Shadow is fast established as our fish-out-of-water protagonist. His world gets shaken three times over, not only by the news of his wife’s death, but by the circumstances, and finally by his introduction to the world of the gods. Ricky Whittle, who plays Shadow, can be witnessed visibly cartwheeling away from the CW show he’s been subjected to for the past several years. In the novel, Shadow periodically comes across too quiet or even curt, but when you put a human face into those quiet moments, there’s a much faster audience connection. Whittle’s performance is unexpected and stunning. I don’t know how much is him versus the excellent material he’s finally been dealt, but either way, he is lovely, and gods willing, will soon see even more god-quality roles. As for the rest of the cast, since casting news has been coming out for the past year, I thought there was nowhere to go but down from my expectations, but everyone is fantastic. Ian McShane has never made a bad career decision in his life and we have everything to look forward to with Kristin Chenoweth and Gillian Anderson still to come.

Responsible for this gift are Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, who have spent the last 15 years amassing an embarrassingly impressive body of work. I have approximately 115 issues with the phrase “Peak TV,” and seven of them are the shows that Bryan Fuller and Michael Green worked on and created prior to the Netflix and Chill era. Between them their TV credits include HANNIBAL, DEAD LIKE ME, PUSHING DAISIES, and KINGS. (Additionally, Green’s writing is responsible for this year’s LOGAN, and soon both ALIEN: COVENANT and BLADERUNNER 2049.) It’s important to me that they get as much notoriety as possible for what they’ve achieved after having their shows cancelled before their time. They know genre. They know how to create a fanbase. They know how to craft a monologue. They know how to orchestrate really cool slo-mo shots of blood. They’ve earned this.

While I’ve seen more of Fuller’s shows in my life, it’s Green’s dialogue that I can recognize so far from the pilot. KINGS featured long-winded monologues mixed with unexpected “they went there” punches that I’m seeing in the rapport between Shadow and Wednesday (not entirely surprising given Green wrote for McShane on Kings as well). Fuller and Green have also admitted to a Coen Brothers-influenced wonkiness that I can definitely see and 100% works here; they’ve put the best parts of all their past projects together to create a really dynamic piece of television.

american gods duo

The only white men I trust:”If we cast a white man to play Shadow we would be the biggest assholes on television” 

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GODS is already being touted as “essential viewing in the age of Trump”—a label that’s also been slapped on Hulu’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE and Netflix’s DEAR WHITE PEOPLE. While there is an inevitable effect on media by politics (and I’m thrilled to see people more aware of that), I would like to throw out there that a show like AMERICAN GODS would be just as important in Hillary’s America. And while its themes absolutely have greater relevance given what’s been recently threatened, to think that its showrunners added or cut anything based on the actions of, to use Neil Gaiman’s words, “an orange shit stain on the used underwear of humanity,” is silly. It is a relevant show, and its themes are made more relevant by our dumpster fire of a political situation, but please read these thinkpeices with a few grains of salt. In this same vein, Fuller and Green don’t get a cookie for casting a person of color in a role written as a person of color, they get to be decent human beings. They get the cookie for the talented showrunning.

american gods fight

Set design???? A+

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Like Starz’s other high profile “unfilmable” adaptation OUTLANDER, AMERICAN GODS will satisfy new viewers and book purists alike. Both adaptations have been smart about what to keep and what to cut. The most successful adaptations understand that different things are going to work in different mediums in order to achieve the same impact, and Fuller and Green seem to be on track—the two have already released that they plan to add an original character as well as bring characters Laura and Bilquis into the forefront of the story, adding episodes from alternate perspectives.

Everything about AMERICAN GODS gives me joy: the fact that Bryan Fuller and Michael Green are getting the recognition they deserve; an un-whitewashed, honest portrayal of the American immigrant experience; the fact that HBO couldn’t make it happen; inventive style-becoming-substance visuals . . .  it’s a huge win. This is a property labeled unfilmable for a reason, but now that it’s in the right hands, we can expect fun things. So far it feels like we’re being given just the right amount of crazy: the viewers are exactly as confused as our protagonist, and, like Shadow, will find that a “fuck it, let’s go” attitude is going to be the best method of survival.

Verdict: Recommend

AMERICAN GODS airs on Sundays on HBO

Teresa Zarmer

Teresa is a guest contributor for Crossfader. In addition to trying to convince strangers on the internet to become emotionally invested in dadcore TV shows from the 1970s, she eats a lot of breakfast food and complains about people who complain about network television.

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