‘American Gods’: Smart, Beautiful, and Puzzling

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·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
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  • Cloris Leachman
    Cloris Leachman
    American actress (1926-2021)
  • Neil Gaiman
    Neil Gaiman
    English fantasy writer
  • Ian McShane
    Ian McShane
    English actor, director, producer, and voice artist (born 1942)
Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon and Ian McShane as Mr Wednesday, Erika Kaar, Crispin Glover, Cloris Leachman, Bruce Langley, Pablo Schreiber, Yetide Badaki in Starz' American Gods.
Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday and Cloris Leachman as Zorya Vechernyaya in Starz’s American Gods. (Photo: Starz)

Based on the bestselling novel by Neil Gaiman, American Gods places a bet that you want to watch a new, big-canvas fantasy epic that will fill the Game of Thrones hole in your soul. Very different in mood and visual style, Gods plays a lot of games with viewers. The question is whether you’ll figure out the rules to be able to follow along.

In the opening hour, beginning Sunday night on Starz, we meet Shadow Moon (Ricky White), a recently widowed convict just released from jail. By chance, Moon meets Mr. Wednesday, played by Ian McShane, and starts working for him as a combination bodyguard and go-fer. They ride around; they visit people, such as a cranky fortune teller played by Cloris Leachman. Moon plays checkers a lot. There is much blood-spurting violence and much delightfully explicit sex. Mr. Wednesday makes some gnomic observations such as, “This is the only country in the world that wonders what it is.” There’s a scene in a 17th-century slave ship that is visited by Orlando Jones in modern-day clothes; he delivers a thunderingly moving excoriation of the oppression of black people.


Do all these seem like random observations? On the contrary, I intend to suggest the experience of watching American Gods: Its narrative leaps around. Many individual scenes are excellent, but the whole thing, based on the half-season Starz made available for review, doesn’t knit together. I assume I’d have a better sense of the show if I’d read the source material. I haven’t read American Gods, though I have read Gaiman’s Sandman comics and a lot of his nonfiction writing about fantasy and genre fiction. I admire his wit, his imagination, and his narrative drive. In the press notes for the show, Gaiman says, “American Gods is based on the idea that over the years, all of the people who have come to America have brought their gods with them. … These are the Old Gods. Now you have lots of shiny, bright New Gods. Gods of Internet, telephone, media, finance.” Almost none of this is made clear in the first four hours of the TV show.


The series was developed for television by Michael Green and Bryan Fuller, who wrote the first three episodes. Fuller is the man who gave us the daffy taffy of Pushing Daisies and the rococo melodrama that was Hannibal, so I’m not surprised that American Gods looks absolutely beautiful, with richly produced special effects, even as its content is, overall, incoherent.

If you’re a fan of Gods-the-novel, I’d wager you’ll eat this stuff up happily. If you don’t know Gods, but you like fantasy with a free-floating id — a faith in storytelling as subconscious dream-catching — then maybe Gods will suit you just fine. Me, I’ll stand over here and admire the show and your effort from afar.

American Gods airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Starz.


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