Adaptations of Neil Gaiman’s work are somewhat mixed. Coraline endures, Stardust was fairly forgettable and every time anyone even thinks of trying to turn Sandman into a movie, I cringe inside. Yet possibly no book of his has ever been more anticipated on the screen than American Gods, his ode to the deities of the old world eking out their forgotten existences in the United States as new gods of Internet and media rise up to supplant them. Screwing this up was very possible, even for someone like Bryan Fuller (Hannibal, Heroes).
And yet it’s damn near perfect. I’m always going to be sad The Rock never got the part, but Ricky Whittle is a terrific anchor as Shadow Moon. He expertly manages the pathos of Shadow, while sacrificing none of the character’s extreme toughness and penchant for breaking his taciturn nature with just the right witty rejoinder. He’s likable from the moment you meet him, and seeing Fuller’s mesmerizing world through his eyes makes the surreal seem almost reasonable. Nothing could be more appropriate.
He’s also a brilliant foil for Ian McShane’s Mr. Wednesday, who was always going to be the make-or-break character in whatever anyone did with American Gods. McShane brings a lot of versatility to the role, focusing on Wednesday’s role as con man more than the general in an upcoming war with the gods, and it’s definitely a solid choice. He’s as pleasant a scumbag as you could ever want to meet.
Gaiman’s America is a fantastic place, both in the strange (but mostly real) pockets of roadside madness that populate his pages, and the bizarre manner in which his gods shape its existence. I was completely certain the iconic scene between Bilquis (the Queen of Sheba and a love goddess) and a man in bed was pretty much unfilmable. I won’t spoil it, but picture a birth, and then imagine the exact opposite of that. Yet the show pulls it off with nothing but clever camera angles and the amazing acting chops of Yetide Badaki and Joel Murray. The latter turns dialogue that feels fine on the page but that had the capacity to be almost farcical on-screen into a completely workable example of sexual worship, and Badaki merges her body and voice to receive it exquisitely.
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I have a few quibbles, though. The show is comically violent in places, particularly the opening, where Vikings visit America a hundred years before Leif Erikson. The ensuing battle in Odin’s honor was like 300 if it had been produced by the Marx Brothers; it wasn't bad, exactly, but putting it in an hourlong episode that already contains two more extended fight scenes seemed a bit much. Fuller is clearly letting a darker sort of comedy play out. This may be more for fans of Hannibal than Pushing Daisies, is what I’m saying.
I’m also not all that into the fact that the creators have apparently turned the crime that sent Shadow to prison from a one-time thing into a career. It was an extremely minor part of his story in the novel, but it did serve as a subtle reminder of the difference between him and Wednesday. Certainly it’s no dealbreaker, but I worry about when they start to lose those sorts of details in the tapestry.
Oh, and I’m always going to be miffed the title song wasn’t ThouShaltNot’s “When Everyone Forgets” from Where’s Neil When You Need Him, but that’s no one’s hangup but mine.
These are very minor complaints, of course, and by all means do not let them dissuade you from checking out this really, really good program. I’ve been waiting to see Gaiman’s work come to life like this since I first read the man, and it’s like faith rewarded to see someone do such an amazing story right for a change. I’m already in avid anticipation of seeing what my favorite scenes will look like in weeks to come because this is goddamn, unbelievably good.