American Gods – Episode 1: The Bone Orchard – Reviewed

Sixteen years after the now-iconic modern fantasy novel debuted, and after several failed attempts, Neil Gaiman's American Gods has at last made it to our screens. To say that the buildup has been exciting would be an understatement: between the show's ridiculously good cast, its high-profile showrunners (fresh off of another hit novel-to-TV adaptation with Hannibal), and Starz' obvious faith in it as a flagship series, there is justified speculation about whether we could be looking at another cultural touchstone on the level of Game of Thrones. While only time will tell if the series can take off like that, the pilot episode has put one piece of speculation to bed: American Gods is truly first-class television. As a fan of the novel, and Gaiman's unique voice in general, my hopes were high – and so were my standards. And now I can safely say that Bryan Fuller and Michael Green's adaptation really is everything I had hoped for. From a spot-on cast to a storytelling voice that translates the epic tale beautifully over to a new medium, to the visual style that very much makes it its own entity apart from the novel, Starz' American Gods is excellent, both as an adaptation and as a TV show in its own right.

"Here I stand among the remains of the previous failed attempts to adapt this novel..."

The series premiere of American Gods introduces us to Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), an ex-con who has just gotten out of prison to find that his world is very different – and much more grim – than the one he thought he would be returning to. Then it plunges us – and him – into a strange, dreamlike vision of America, full of eerie hallucinations and apparent magic, presided over by a mysterious and smooth-talking stranger named Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane). What follows in this first episode is more or less a straight adaptation of the beginning of the book, for those who have read it, but what makes it so special is not just that it tells Gaiman's story very well (which it absolutely does), but how it tells that story in a television context. This is not a show that feels the need to hold your hand and lay out the premise and the mythology. In fact, the most striking thing about the episode's approach to introducing the series is how little it reveals. It feels very much like the first chapter of a novel, in that it isn't afraid to be vague and mysterious; it isn't here to lay out what we're about to see for eight weeks, but is instead here to hook you into its world and leave you wanting to understand the things that you don't. It builds a world, and a mood, and characters, but it doesn't tell you too much about them; it is tantalizingly mysterious, in the best way. In that regard, I am somewhat reminded of the early episodes of Twin Peaks, where David Lynch only very slowly revealed the nature of the series, but handled that slow reveal in such an arresting way that you had to know more, even if you didn't “get it.” I am actually a bit jealous of those who get to watch this episode having not read the book, as I imagine that it must have been mystifying in the most wonderful way. Having read it, though, I can at least say for certain that the series not only isn't dumbing down or simplifying the book, but appears to be expanding it and adding to what is already there.

This is not just a straightforward, very literal adaptation, although it follows the source material closely so far. While we only have slight indications to work with thus far, it appears that the series feels free to explore different aspects of the story, and use the luxury of the medium to expand upon characterization. Character is certainly what this first episode is most interested in. It really takes the time to introduce us to Shadow and Wednesday, and while Wednesday is by his very nature a mystery, Shadow feels by the end of the episode like a very fleshed-out and real person. Fuller and Green's script puts great emphasis on Shadow's emotional state, and this ultimately is the backbone of the episode, grounding it and making it relatable even as the larger arc remains mysterious. The script is also in great hands with its two excellent stars. Whittle and McShane are both fantastic, giving Shadow a haunted and introspective thoughtfulness, and Wednesday a larger-than-life swagger that couldn't be more perfect. They are immediately characters you want to follow for the duration of the series, and they totally nail the complexity of Gaiman's written characters as well.

"Cheers to a long-lasting series!"
The biggest thing that truly sets the series apart from the source material is its aesthetic: it really finds its own voice in the look of the show. This is a beautifully shot series, with striking compositions and some very unique locations – the most striking of which definitely being the bizarre giant-crocodile bar which was used heavily in the show's marketing images. It fully embraces the dreamlike nature of the story, both with totally surreal dream sequences, and with an ethereal and off-kilter style to the waking scenes as well, in keeping with the idea that Shadow has entered a strange, seldom-seen underbelly of America. The opening credits – with its somewhat Nine Inch Nails-ish electronic music featuring Garbage's Shirley Manson on vocals – introduce this aesthetic very well, with a dreamy, neon-lit blend of religious iconography and cyberpunkish technology.

All of this adds up into a show which is all at once very much the world Neil Gaiman created, but also very much a show with its own vision and sensibility. I would argue that this is the best sort of adaptation: one that “gets” the source material and captures its essence, but that has a mind and soul and creativity of its own, and isn't afraid to use it. The result is a series which surely will please fans of the novel, but which stands firmly as really good television by its own merits. Of course, all of this is just based on what is very much an introductory chapter, so we will need to see how the series develops over the coming weeks as it really delves into Gaiman's mythology, but things are off to an excellent start. American Gods is definitely essential viewing.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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