If you’ll allow me to be crude for a moment: more often than not, gods are dicks. They’re narcissists and sociopaths. They crave your worship and don’t think twice of smiting you if you displease them the teensiest bit. They like a spot of sacrifice, ideally of the human kind – the bloodier the better. Whoever thought it was a good idea to give such hypersensitive, overpowered egomaniacs with the maturity of toddlers even the slightest bit of power?
What’s that you say? We did it? By believing in them, we invested them with power?
… literal theocracy sucks.
I discovered Neil Gaiman when I was in my mid-20s, starting with his short stories (some of my absolute favourite examples of the form can be found in his collection Smoke and Mirrors), then graduating to his seminal Sandman comics. For a while I would have said that he was one of my favourite handful of writers. The spell broke sometime around 2001, and it was when reading American Gods that I first realised. Gaiman is generally better at short-form storytelling or longer stories that nevertheless lean heavily on the episodic; one of the themes of Sandman is indeed stories and storytelling and its form and format (Sandman came out as 75 issues) made it easy for Gaiman not just to indulge in narrative digressions but to make them essential to the story he was telling. American Gods is great in its digressions, but I’ve always found its central narrative relatively weak – doubly so because it is tethered to a main character who is a cypher and merely reactive to the world around him. American Gods, an urban mythology suffused with Americana, believes too much in the creed that road trip stories are all about the route, not the destination, yet for me it wavered too much between the individual episodes and detours, which I enjoyed, and the central plot and characters, which felt stale and derivative, not least of Gaiman’s earlier works. I wanted to like American Gods, I wanted to believe in its magic, but while I was reading it I found myself not caring much at all.
Nevertheless, when the announcement was made that Bryan Fuller, the mastermind behind TV’s Hannibal, would collaborate with Michael Green (whose writing credits range from the intriguing though short-lived series Kings as well as last year’s hits Logan and Blade Runner 2049 to the more iffy, like Green Lantern and Alien: Covenant) to turn American Gods into a television series I was excited – and doubly so when casting details were revealed. I was still somewhat worried due to having been underwhelmed by the source material, but the actual series quickly convinced me that American Gods was in good hands here. Like me, Fuller and Green seem to have been fans of the novel’s digressions, taking them as starting points for intriguing, exciting short films that stand on their own even as they expand on the story’s themes. Their casting is well nigh faultless, bringing Gaiman’s strongest characters to full life while finding new and interesting angles to those characters that were less well served by the novel. Most of all, they updated the material in smart ways and filled in the story’s blanks with empathy as much as audacity; their Shadow, while still not the most active character, is considerably more engaging than Gaiman’s, well, shadow of a man (there is narrative reason for this, but it doesn’t make the character more interesting to read), and the relatively minor book characters of Laura (Emily Browning), Shadow’s wife who won’t take her death lying down, and Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), the world’s tallest, most foulmouthed leprechaun, quickly turn into the series’ MVPs – which is saying something, since American Gods also provides juicy material for the likes of Ian McShane, who plays the aging trickster god Odin.
The resulting series, at least in its first season, is a strange but potent hybrid beast, the strongest parts of Gaiman’s novel amplified by the sensitivities and lack of restraint Fuller and Green have brought to the table. There’s a gaudy, garish quality to TV’s American Gods, a Grand Guignol camp that may not be to everyone’s liking, and so far at least the series is in no great hurry to get anywhere, but damn, if it doesn’t enjoy sniffing the flowers along the way. American Gods is gross, poignant, witty, juvenile, sexy, crude and smart all at once. Nevertheless, it seems that the gods may not be on the series’ side: in late 2017 it was revealed that Fuller and Green would be leaving as showrunners (recent statements by the cable network Starz have relativised this, though not entirely convincingly), and some of the actors have indicated a reluctance to return. It is possible that American Gods will crash and burn or, perhaps worse, just fade into obscurity, depending on the decisions of both the creative minds and the people holding the purse strings. Perhaps the Fates have not yet decided on American Gods – but it would be sacrilege if a series pulsating with such strange energy were to be sacrificed to the twin gods of Budget and Management. May the right ears at Starz hear our prayers.