“American Gods” is a gorgeous, violent, Americana-infused supernatural drama, and if all that sounds like a lot, that’s because the Starz drama’s figurative interpretations seem inexhaustible, like the dreamy world it quickly builds.
Perhaps best summed up for fans of the “Hannibal” and “Pushing Daises” executive producer as “Bryan Fuller unleashed,” his latest creation is a mythology built from the blemished and beautiful bones of the United States. Racism is dominant theme of the first four episodes, as are religion, sexuality, and– Did I mention violence?
For as bluntly as these topics are brought up — the more brutal moments are often so flamboyant they’re comical — how they stitch together remains a mystery. Exposition is often seen as the enemy of a tightly woven narrative, and “American Gods” all but eliminates explanation from its early hours. Without spoiling anything (for fear of being wrong as much as ruining the surprise for viewers), here’s what we know: A regular guy with an irregular name — Shadow Moon, played by Ricky Whittle — starts off in prison, with only a few days left on his sentence. He’s eager to get back to his wife, Laura (Emily Browning), but gets some bad news just before he gets out. His trip home is repeatedly hindered, by weather and technical snafus, but the complications result in his collision with Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane).
A quirky character with a commanding voice, Mr. Wednesday has a self-assuredness about him that’s magnetic, and it’s this presence that convinces Shadow to take a job as his bodyguard. What, exactly, this entails is a bit up in the air: Mr. Wednesday isn’t one for telling straight truths, even though he is quite the talker. A few episodes in, he tells an old friend that he’s “easing” Shadow into their world — along with the audience. What is to be asked of this driver, bodyguard, and questionably suicidal employee remains unclear, and Mr. Wednesday’s association with some of the supernatural shenanigans Shadow finds himself in is tangential, at best.
What shenanigans, you ask? Well, there are early 9th century explorers whose blood flies like fireworks, a talking spider who might be an African-American prophet, a woman who does things in bed that would shock (most) porn stars, a punk kid in a floating orb with faceless henchmen, and a heavy-drinking leprechaun who’s itching for a fight.
But for all its topical sheen and thematic possibilities, “American Gods” can be frustratingly slow and too mysterious for its own good — even when it acknowledges these criticisms directly. McShane, giving the runaway performance highlight of the series, does his best to charm us into submission. “Daddy likes a slow ride,” he tells his driver, just before the story itself slows down even further. At another juncture, he expounds on the wild imagery and wilder characters making up a world that doesn’t quite feel real, but never does he (or the show) establish enough order for the audience to understand the stakes. The traditional concepts of life and death don’t apply here, but how the rules have changed isn’t entirely clear.
Mad Sweeney, the aforementioned leprechaun played by Pablo Schreiber, does his part to make up for the confounding ambiguity thanks to Schreiber’s considerable swagger. He takes scenes with him as saunters in and out, a glint in his eye and chip on his shoulder, and there’s a stoicism to his gaze that accentuates his more intense physical expressions; as though he’s both putting forth a false front even though he can back up all his tough talk, no problem.
Fans of Neil Gaiman’s novel should be pleased with how the series interprets his characters, as Mad Sweeney, Mr. Wednesday, Gillian Anderson’s Media, Peter Stormare’s Czernobog, and Jonathan Tucker’s Low Key Lyesmith all leave strong, addictive first impressions. And “American Gods” goes out of its way to introduce as many members of its enormous cast as possible, introducing seemingly disconnected vignettes at every available opportunity. Each of the first four episodes feels like it’s building to something grand, and the waiting shifts between tolerable and invigorating thanks to the acting talent showcased.
That is, when we’re not utterly lost in the stunning visual designs. Imagine the most luscious dream sequences from “Hannibal” and extend them for an entire episode: That’s the vibe of “American Gods,” as every production detail comes together to create a world we’ve never seen before. Director David Slade and cinematographer Jo Williams, who worked on the first two episodes, deserve immense credit for pulling off such a dazzling array of iconic imagery. Creating an eye-catching fiery-eyed buffalo is one thing, but finding equal inspiration from an old gravel road or rolling clouds filled with rain is quite another. “American Gods” pulls it all together to craft an American landscape filled with familiar figures, but stylized like never before.
While we’re still waiting to see if the story’s substance can match its visual splendor, there’s so much meat here, it’s hard to doubt the blood is coming — especially with Fuller wielding the cleaver.
“American Gods” premieres Sunday, April 30 on Starz.