'American Gods' Review: A messy but compelling attempt at prestige television

Source: Starz
Source: Starz

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As with the timely release of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, American Gods couldn't be coming at a better moment. The adaptation of the acclaimed Neil Gaiman novel of the same name is, on the most surface of levels, a story of Old Gods versus New — think: Odin the god of war versus something more conceptual, like Media. But these gods are a reflection of the struggle of immigration; the battle between assimilating to a new country and preserving the traditions of home. In other words, it's the type of source material that's particularly relevant in Trump's America. 

American Gods has the look and feel of prestige television, but the Starz series doesn't know what to do with itself yet. It has the audacity to throw a lot of things at the wall and see what sticks. The four episodes provided to the press include visually breathtaking, evocative vignettes, one that will remind you why Gaiman's novel is considered a modern masterpiece. 

However, this somewhat reckless approach also leads to irresponsible, tone-deaf imagery and laughably bad dialogue. Perhaps most indicting: Unless you're familiar with the book or have thoroughly researched the premise, you'll have a hard time knowing what the hell is happening. 

Despite some deeply problematic flaws, I can't deny I'm looking forward to watching more. 

Side note: Can you imagine naming your child Shadow Moon?
Source: 
Starz

The series has some terrible dialogue, though it does improve over time. 

If you're talking with your significant other and you ask if they're doing OK, to which they respond with, "Waiting for the sky to fall is gonna cause more bother than the sky actually falling, which it isn't," then you should immediately worry for this person. That is a real exchange between two characters, not long into the first episode. 

On the receiving end of this college freshman Philosophy 101 blather is Shadow Moon, a convict who is about to end his stint in prison and return to his wife, Laura. Unfortunately for Shadow, Laura dies just days before he's to be released — and to make things worse, she was caught cheating with his best friend Robbie when they're killed in a car accident. To add even more insult to injury, Robbie is played by Dane Cook, who is disliked by a lot of people

The dialogue is choppy throughout American Gods; it reads like it came straight from the page with nary an edit, the delivery awkward, and at times, unnecessary. It's as if showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green eventually trust their actors to invoke emotions through physical cues, instead of just stating exactly what's on their mind. For instance: There's a scene in which a woman, recently deceased, is ascending a stairwell to heaven and needlessly remarks, "This is not Queens." It does, however, improve over time. 

This is especially important — though doubtless most challenging — for Ricky Whittle, who plays Shadow. Shadow acts as audience surrogate, a normal person in a fantastical world of gods, and has to balance the sheer absurdity of what he's seeing for the first time with the tangible grief of losing his wife.

This is a leprechaun. He drinks.
Source: 
Starz

For such a timely show, American Gods can be remarkably tone-deaf and immature.

Again, an adaptation of an award-winning novel that acts as an allegory for immigration couldn't be coming at a better time. This makes it all the more inexplicable when American Gods shoots itself in the foot. 

The most indicting moment is a violent scene in the premiere involving Shadow that invokes some disturbing historical imagery. It's an exceptionally irresponsible sequence to depict, especially since Shadow is the series' main character. 

Of course, he survives; the main purpose for the scene is the gratuitous shock value. It's a tough hole for American Gods to dig itself out of, and they don't do themselves any favors when Mr. Wednesday, the mysterious figure who hires Shadow as his personal bodyguard, follows it up in the subsequent episode by joking about the moment. It's not "edgy" in the provocative sense — it's just infuriating. 

The series also handles potential moments of nuance in the most immature way possible. It tackles an infidelity subplot with all the subtlety of a 12-year-old (hint: it almost exclusively involves a dick pic). A character is coming back from the dead? Let's belabor the point by not just showing this person vomit, but experiencing explosive diarrhea. 

OK, yeah, this just looks awesome
Source: 
Starz

The visuals and Coming to America one-offs are outstanding.   

American Gods' stunning, evocative imagery is some of the best on television since NBC's Hannibal. This isn't all that surprising when you consider that Fuller, one of the series' showrunners, created Hannibal and brought Hannibal director David Slade along for the ride. The best moments, aesthetically, coincide with the most impressive narrative achievements on the show — which come in the form of its Coming to America vignettes. 

The Coming to America stories, typically serving as the cold opens for the episodes, are one-off sequences that show several Old Gods' journeys to America. They take on a few forms and a few time periods, including Vikings making their way to American shores and African slaves aboard a colonial slave ship. 

They serve a smaller purpose to the overarching plot of the series — Shadow and Mr. Wednesday trekking across the states to rally Old Gods to fight against the New — but are essential world-building for a show that thrusts its audience into a God-filled world. In fact, the only drawback is that the Coming to America stories are more captivating than the main plot. If American Gods was merely adapted as a series of vignettes featuring Old Gods coming to America, it might be better.

There are no 'Coming to America' press photos, so here's a white buffalo.
Source: 
Starz

American Gods, flaws and all, will make you want to watch more.

American Gods won't likely be considered for any major Emmys this year, since its flaws are plentiful, but I can see myself gobbling up the first season quicker than the goddess Bilquis gobbles up her victims. (You'll see.) 

There's a pluckiness to American Gods — an amalgam of its stunning visuals, epic misfires, ridiculous dialogue, surprisingly impressive cast and occasional moments of brilliance — that can't be emulated anywhere else. It was an arduous journey to get one of Gaiman's most celebrated works on the small screen, and while American Gods is far from perfect, I'm compelled to watch more, to see if it rights the ship or becomes an even bigger train wreck. 

American Gods premieres at 9 p.m. Eastern on April 30 on Starz. 

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Miles Surrey

Miles is a staff writer at Mic, covering culture. He is based in New York and can be reached at miles@mic.com.

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