Believe In Neil Gaiman and Bryan Fuller's American Gods

Chris Jordan looks at what we know so far about the long-awaited series, and why it could be the best new show of next year.

The concept art that Bryan Fuller
tweeted out with his announcement
about the series. Either that, or a
drawing of last week's winter storm.
The embattled mystical beings of Neil Gaiman's iconic novel American Gods feed on belief: they thrive on the stories told about them and the faith that humans put in them, and shrivel and die when they are forgotten. In a way, they are themselves like stories, in that they only retain their power as long as people remember them. And in a way, American Gods is like its protagonists: the strength of its cultural power depends on the degree to which readers or potential viewers are willing to take a chance on such a boldly different and unique sort of fantasy narrative. While Gaiman's novel very quickly became an iconic bestseller, its journey to the screen has been far more complicated. An esoteric, meandering hybrid of fantasy epic and intimate road-trip drama, American Gods firmly resists standard genre categorization, and while the success of the novel made a screen adaptation seem like an obvious thing to do, Hollywood long seemed unsure whether it believed in Gaiman's gods enough to conjure them into being. A few years ago HBO came very, very close to creating an American Gods series – supposedly Gaiman even wrote the script for the pilot – but they eventually got cold feet. Perhaps this was due to the recent failure of the rather Gaimanesque Carnivale, or perhaps it was because they decided that a certain other epic fantasy novel by a guy named George R.R. Martin would be a safer commercial bet. But now, fifteen years after the book was first published, it looks like the belief is strong enough that the long-hoped-for American Gods series is finally happening. It was announced last summer that Starz would be producing the series, with Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, and Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller acting as co-showrunner with Michael Green, and Neil Gaiman himself involved as a writer and executive producer. Given how very, very close the HBO series came to existence before getting the axe, I was hesitant to treat Starz' American Gods as a sure thing... but yesterday we finally got the first official news of a concrete development in the show's production. It now looks very much official: Gaiman's mystical vision of America will be coming to our screens in 2017. As we get our first pieces of news, and our first statements from Fuller and Gaiman about the series, a whole lot is still unknown, but one thing is for sure: there are many reasons to suspect that American Gods will be one of the best new shows of next year, and a refreshing antidote to certain overplayed pop-cultural trends.

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Neil Gaiman had stated previously that the show's production depended very much on finding the right actor to play the story's mysterious, alienated protagonist, Shadow Moon. An ex-con who gets out of jail to find that his old life has been completely destroyed in his absence, Shadow accepts a job offer from an otherworldly man named Wednesday, and finds himself plunged into a supernatural world of gods and magic hidden just beneath the surface of America. It is through his eyes that we see all the strangeness and mystique of Gaiman's world, and the themes of identity, a particularly American brand of self-discovery, and the ways in which narratives shape the understanding of culture, belief, and power. And yesterday, we found out what he looks like. In the first concrete piece of news about the series since it was first announced over the summer, Starz revealed that Shadow will be played by Ricky Whittle, a British actor best known in America for his role on The 100. The announcement prompted a statement from Gaiman that he is thrilled with the casting, and fans of the novel have every reason to be optimistic as well. We know from The 100 that he can do a perfectly convincing American accent – always a concern when a British actor is cast in an explicitly American role – and in every other way he seems to fit the part excellently. There have been some understandable anxieties about how Starz might approach the casting of Shadow, and Whittle certainly puts those anxieties to rest.

Race is another important theme in the novel; or rather, America's
Really, it's pretty appropriate to have a British
actor playing the American lead of a British
author's novel about Americana...
preoccupations and anxieties surrounding race, racism, and cultural identity. In keeping with this theme, Shadow is written as a man with a mixed ethnic background that he doesn't fully know, and an appearance that is somewhat racially ambiguous. His appearance is such that the people he meets in his journeys tend to project their own assumptions, views, and stereotypes about race onto him, giving a somewhat unfiltered view of America's racial hang-ups. The mystery of his own heritage and his curiosity about it (he is the son of a single mom, and has no idea who his dad is) reflects what Gaiman sees as a quintessentially American journey: the desire to define one's self and one's culture in a patchwork country that is likewise always trying to figure out what it is. As Mr. Wednesday says, “This is the only country in the world that worries about what it is. The rest of them know what they are. No one ever needs to go searching for the heart of Norway. Or looks for the soul of Mozambique. They know what they are.”

As an embodiment of this peculiarly American search for identity, it is thus very important that Shadow is a person of color; not a standard Hollywood white guy of European descent. Yet, since the book deliberately leaves his ethnic background and appearance vague for these exact thematic reasons, he is never explicitly defined as a black man or anything else. Which usually means that a studio will try to use that as a loophole to whitewash the character. Particularly in the wake of the Oscars-driven tension surrounding whitewashing in Hollywood and the marginalizing of characters of color, there was increasing anxiety that the book's critique of race in America might be dropped altogether, and Starz might cast a white guy as Shadow. Gaiman said over the summer that he really hoped they didn't do that, but it was unclear how much sway he might have over the casting process for the lead role of what Starz clearly hopes will be its answer to Game of Thrones. Fortunately, the casting of Ricky Whittle puts those anxieties to bed; not only have they cast someone who looks the part of Shadow according to Gaiman, but they've also risen above the depressing custom of major productions always casting a white actor by default unless the character is blatantly and explicitly defined as a certain minority.

While I have not watched The 100, clips I've watched to get to know our future Shadow Moon have also convinced me that he is a good match personality-wise to play the protagonist. Shadow is a complex and tortured man who hides a sharp intellect behind a tough-guy facade, and uses stoic coolness to mask a deep inner sadness and existential angst. While Whittle's work is largely unknown to me, my brief introduction makes me feel pretty good that he can convey all that with the mix of gravitas and coolness that the role demands. The rest of the cast remains either secret or not yet chosen, leaving us still very much in suspense about who will play other key characters like Shadow's undead wife, Laura, and the various American Gods like Wednesday, Anansi, Czernobog, and The Technical Boy. I'm keeping an open mind for most of those characters, but I've always imagined Charles Dance as the perfect Wednesday – how about that, Bryan Fuller? With such a huge ensemble of characters – humans, gods, talking dogs, mythical creatures, and everything in-between – there is certainly a lot of room for a great cast.

Neil Gaiman, summoning American Gods from
the pages of the Necronomicon.
It is American Gods' huge cast of characters that gives it such great potential for an ongoing series. Fuller and Gaiman have both hinted that the show will be more than just an adaptation of the novel: it will open up the novel's world even further, and expand upon the stories of its many human and god characters. When the show was in pre-production in its previous incarnation at HBO, Gaiman hinted that he envisioned the events of the original book alone forming a two-season arc, and with Gaiman still involved as a writer for this new series, it's reasonable to think that that's still true. Meanwhile, Fuller said late last year that Gaiman's huge ensemble of gods is enough to flesh the story out into a sweeping epic on the scale of Marvel's connected universe. Of course, this comparison may make sense as a measurement of the number of main characters and major intersecting plot threads, but in terms of narrative style and tone, it's safe to say that American Gods is more likely to be the anti-Marvel-universe than any direct competition.

And let's be honest: that really is exactly what we need. As the extremely specific trends of the Marvel Cinematic universe continue to play out in increasingly formulaic and CGI-fueled fashion, our pop-cultural landscape could really use a counterbalance; something that is just as mythologically epic, but told on a more intimate, more human, less over-the-top-Hollywood scale. That's exactly what American Gods does on paper, and probably will also do on TV: it takes a massive pantheon of mystical beings living in America, and tells their story in the style of a surreal and fantastical spin on a Wim Wenders' road movie, rather than a Stan Lee-style comic book. Assuming the series is as tonally faithful to Gaiman's writing as we have every reason to assume it will be, the series will give us a fantasy epic done as a nuanced character drama. Doing that on the scale that both Fuller and Gaiman have foreshadowed will make for a truly fascinating series.

Given the quality of work that we have come to expect from Neil Gaiman and Bryan Fuller, and given the first very good sign of Ricky Whittle's casting as Shadow, things are definitely looking promising for American Gods to be one of the best and most interesting shows to look forward to in 2017. We know that these auteurs will give us a very well-written series, and their ambitions to grow Gaiman's novel into a larger and more expansive universe offers endless possibilities. Of course, this also means that Gaiman needs to hurry up and finish the second American Gods book which he has been talking about for several years, so a couple seasons down the line he doesn't find himself in the awkward situation George R.R. Martin is in right now, with the show threatening to surpass the book series. Really, though, even that is just one more thing to look forward to, as the series and second novel will likely go together as Gaiman's world moves to an even more prominent place in our pop-cultural landscape. On both page and screen, we have a whole lot of new material to look forward to in the American Gods universe in the coming years. That's definitely something to believe in.

- Christopher S. Jordan