Richard tucks into this latest glossy fantasy series from Bryan Fuller and Neil Gaiman. Did it do the book justice?
While there have certainly been several television shows based on novels, I honestly don’t think we’ve ever seen anything quite like this before.
Usually, the transition from novel to TV comes in one of three forms. Firstly, you have series to series: a long-running saga of novels which then become adapted in one or more seasons of a television program. These kinds of shows either stop before the novels do or move beyond the story at some point, diverging from that narrative path. Great examples would be A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Expanse, or most famously, Game of Thrones. Then, you have the “loosely based” adaptation of a single story into a program where the initial work is more of a starting point for the narrative; Young Doctor’s Notebook or Man in the High Castle. Then you have the miniseries model where one story is told practically in its entirety and simply divided into smaller pieces, a la Band of Brothers. American Gods is, in many ways, a hybrid of the loosely-based and miniseries formats, and yet, it is a very different and fascinating animal.
The two names that should put this series firmly on your to-watch list, strangely, aren’t in the cast credits. They are Bryan Fuller and Neil Gaiman, who are two of the executive producers. Gaiman is the author of the original novel on which the series is based, and is, in my humble opinion, one of the best damn writers currently working today. If you haven’t picked up any of his work already, you have got to give this guy a chance. If you’re not sure about the whole book thing, then I’d say either watch American Gods or Stardust. The reason being that, when Gaiman gets involved in the translations of his work, he doesn’t allow them to be diluted. What he brings to the table is a depth of imagination we rarely get to access these days, and any downplaying of his more outlandish elements would be a disservice. That second name I mentioned is executive producer and developer Bryan Fuller, who you can thank for Hannibal, one of my all-time favorite TV shows. The series that Fuller has developed have an overarching stylistic sensibility that I pretty much adore, especially when things get bizarre or gory. As you can probably tell, American Gods is already being backed by what could easily be considered my dream team, and we haven’t even gotten to the story yet.
Our main character is the gloriously-named Shadow Moon, played by Ricky Whittle. We follow him on his week-early release from prison to attend the funeral of his wife. Along the way, he meets the eccentric and affable Mr. Wednesday, played by the utterly magnificent Ian McShane, who offers him a position as his man and bodyguard. And that, ladies and gents, is all I’m going to tell you. If you want to know more, read the book or watch the show! Nothing I write here can do even the smallest measure of justice to the profound existential mindfuckery that is this story. Yes, I know I’m hyping this thing up, but to be honest, I don’t care and I stand by it. This is one of my favorite books being fantastically-adapted to the small screen by a team I trust in what is quickly becoming one of my favorite ever TV shows. While season 1 only takes us a third or so into the story, it approaches the source very much in its own way, straddling a line between faithful retelling and reimagined content to the point where I have absolutely no clue where they will go in season 2.
McShane as Wednesday is an inspired choice; you might recognise him as the owner of “The Continental” from John Wick. The confident manic energy and amoral insanity just seem built into his performance from the ground up, and you keep wanting to see him just to see what he does next. On the opposite side of the coin, Whittle gives a wholly different and quite restrained turn; the presence and power are there in spades but buried under layers of disbelief and self-control. This combination reminds me of the interplay between Django and Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained, but with less heroism and a lot crazier. The rest of the cast are great as well, including Laura Moon, the deceased yet quite active wife, played by Emily Browning. In interviews, Browning stated that she didn’t want to be the heart and soul of the series, she wanted to be the spleen. That should pretty much tell you everything you need to know about this series, and any gaps should be filled by Crispin Glover as Mr. World, appearing to be having an absolute blast, and Gillian Anderson as Media-dressed as David Bowie.
This show is not for the faint of heart or something to have on in the background. This is another example of the modern golden age of television we are privileged to be living through, and as a consequence, the show feels no need to pull its punches or explain more than it feels the need to. Sex, religion, nudity, philosophy and preconceptions are all put under the spotlight as American Gods would like nothing better than to get under your skin and dig itself deep into your subconscious. While sadly showrunners Fuller and Michael Green have departed the project, and no release date has been set for season 2, Gaiman announced he will be taking a more central role, and with the studio backing the next season to the hilt, we can only have hope that they don’t drop the ball. This is big and bold television at its very best, and if they can keep up the established standard, they will have made a believer out of me…
- Season 1 originally had 10 episodes, but after seeing the cuts for episodes 3 and 4, the producers decided to merge them into one single episode and then use the cliffhanger for the second to last episode as the season finale, then using parts of the original season finale through the whole season. Hence making the season 8 episodes long.
- The series was originally picked up by HBO with Tom Hanks as producer.
- Nicolas Cage was approached to play the role of Mr Wednesday but turned it down, despite liking the script. He cited the commitment of doing a TV show as the main reason for turning it down.
- This is the second appearance of Ian McShane in a movie based on a Neil Gaiman story. He starred as Mr. Bobinsky in Coraline (2009).