Thursday, April 27, 2017

TV REVIEW: Starz's 'American Gods'

Starz will premiere its new original drama series American Gods on Sunday, April 30 at 9/8c. The drama stars Ricky Whittle, Emily Browning, Crispin Glover, Bruce Langley, Yetide Badaki, Pablo Schreiber and Ian McShane.

Read on for my thoughts on the epic fantasy series after screening its first four episodes.

In its first four episodes, American Gods presents itself as a fantastic allegory for the immigrant experience in the United States of America. The show is based on Neil Gaiman's book that pits old gods vs. new gods in a war for power and control. But the series is striving for something deeper in the source material as well. It depicts the melting pot of American ideologies. People from all over the world come to this country and bring their unique cultures and identities with them. It's created a country that is truly diverse in a number of beautiful and frustrating ways. At its heart, American Gods is a show about people trying to be remembered and stay relevant. They come to this country in the hopes of a better life that is as rewarding as their previous one. Over time, ideologies change and merge with different beliefs. It's a complicated process that the show doesn't shy away from. The show gets that struggle and dramatizes it in some fantastic and truly artful ways. The narrative is largely about world-building and fantastic displays of power in these opening episodes. But the message of a country that is welcoming to all is still apparent throughout all of it. It makes the show feel topical and relevant in a way that some of the old gods wish they still were.

The season itself is a lit scattered and confusing though. It helps to know the logline for the series before watching the first episode because the show doesn't really spend a ton of time really outlining what's happening in a simplistic way. It's largely just a lot of crazy and random bits of action that the characters and the audience just need to accept. I have no connection to the source material. I've heard that the series - which comes from veteran showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green - is a faithful adaptation. It draws on the same strengths and weaknesses. I'm also preparing myself for this to be a show where people who've read the book see the episodes differently than the people who haven't. That shouldn't be all too problematic though because I haven't read the book but really enjoyed these opening episodes. They are a ton of fun and boast some amazing performances.

The story is about an old mysterious god named Mr. Wednesday - played by Ian McShane to absolute and delightful perfection - traveling around the country to recruit other gods in this war. It essentially has a road trip feel to it. He is joined on this mission by his new bodyguard Shadow Moon - played by The 100's Ricky Whittle. Shadow is essentially the straight man of this story. He's coming from a happy life with a wife, Laura (Emily Browning), and a recent stint in prison. Shadow is probably the most problematic character in the early going. His backstory and motivation are just so cliched. It's something that has been done to death in the last decade of prestige TV. And thus, it's hard for him to stand out right away. Plus, he seems too passive as a character. All of this crazy, over-the-top, borderline impossible stuff is happening right in front of him. His reactions are a little too subdued. He seems to be experiencing a longterm existential crisis that really isn't that compelling to watch. Mr. Wednesday is just slowly easing him into this world. But it's still taking Shadow a long time to accept all of this - especially since the show asks the audience to go along with all of it from the very first moment.

And yet, it should also be pointed out that Whittle isn't bad as Shadow Moon. He's perfectly fine and acceptable. All the problems in the early going are purely structural that can be fixed with more urgency and understanding. However, a good performance does stand out as potentially bad when frequently working opposite great. McShane is so strong as Mr. Wednesday. He has this effortless charm to him that makes everyone want to do exactly as he wants. He's a conman essentially. That's a fascinating way to depict gods in this show. They are conning people into believing in them. They thrive and become more powerful through people's beliefs. The old gods are falling because they seemingly have no place in current society. So, Wednesday is trying to con and swindle his way back to relevance. It's compelling to see how the old gods have fallen and adjusted to their new world. A Slavic family of gods - which include Cloris Leachman and Peter Stormare - are living in a poor apartment in Chicago and have to rely on family for strength. The Egyptian god of the dead, Anubis (Chris Obi), is now working as a mortician. A mystical Jinn (Mousa Kraish) is now barely making a living as a cab driver in New York City and can only rarely grant people their wishes. A leprechaun, Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), is now incredibly down-on-his-luck if he loses his magical coins.

All of these personal stories create a fantastic worldview for the show. The series truly believes that gods and higher beings exist solely because people belief in them. That's an understanding that makes sense. People have wildly different beliefs all over the world. Just because someone thinks a certain thing doesn't mean they can prove that someone else is wrong for what they believe. All of these ideologies can exist because people make them exist. It's true to the people who belief. That's a very powerful statement. It becomes even more important in these "Coming to America" sequences that are scattered throughout the episodes. Each hour opens with a vignette showing how one of the old gods made their way to America. These are absolutely beautiful sequences to watch. They are completely detached from everything else happening on the show. There's such a strong willingness to just leave what's going on with Mr. Wednesday and Shadow Moon and spend 11 minutes on a completely new story in the middle of an episode. It's not the Game of Thrones approach to telling multiple stories with characters spread out throughout a world. These vignettes have a clear beginning, middle and end. They are frequently the only times those characters are actually seen. And yet, many of them are so powerful to watch - especially one in the second episode that has Orlando Jones delivering the best performance of his career in telling the story of black people in America.

These four episodes are primarily building up the main conflict. It's getting everything set for a confrontation that's bound to happen eventually. It is a slow story. Mr. Wednesday and Shadow Moon don't make a ton of progress very quickly. And yet, every action feels deliberate and important. There is a grandiosity to the story that is very infectious and necessary. In order to belief in the power of the gods, the audience must see how incredible and easy their control of the world can be. It's waning a little bit for the old gods. So when the new gods show up, it's a burst of excitement. Gillian Anderson plays the god of media. That's a meta moment in the show because it's a god that the audience clearly believes in simply for viewing and obsessing over the series. Her introduction is one of the greatest moments in these episodes. The surprise of it is the most important part as well. The same can also be said for Bruce Langley as the god of technology. They have bursts of excitement and unpredictability that really knock the narrative off its axis in some strong and strange ways.

Of course, the true star of this series may be the direction. Every single shot is a marvel to look at. It's a Hannibal reunion between writer Bryan Fuller and director David Slade. If you loved the look on that show, you'll love it here too. It may be even more ethereal and dreamlike than that show as well. Plus, it being on Starz means the creative team doesn't have to deal with any restrictions when it comes to violence and nudity. It may be the most over-the-top show in both of those qualities. And yet, it's not gratuitous either. The violence and sex are necessary to help define these characters and this world. It feels like a war with casualties that span across the generations. The opening scene of the premiere is incredibly violent, brutal and difficult to watch but it sets the stage for what to expect from the show as well. The show isn't afraid to push the boundaries of what's acceptable to show on TV. There's a gay sex scene in one of the episodes that may be the most explicit thing ever depicted on any show. And yet, it's powerful to watch because of what it says about the two characters involved. So, the attention to detail and awareness of how things come across is abundantly clear to the creative team. And thus, these episodes are playful and horrifying to watch but that only enriches the viewing experience even more.