Ben Watches Television : American Gods, Season One (2017)
Neil Gaiman is one of the most adaptable authors out there. I've never personally read his novels, but I know they're overflowing with gorgeous imagery, clever symbolism, creative takes on supernatural tropes and characters on life-affirming journeys because Josie's a dedicated fan of his work. There are a lot of great authors out there, but there is a strong demand for the kind of stories Gaiman writes and no one does writes them quite like him. That's why I wonder what took so long before someone picked up his 2001 magnum opus American Gods, winner of the Hugo, Bram Stoker, Nebula and World Fantasy Award on the SAME. FREAKIN'. YEAR.
That is IN-SANE.
It was finally produced by a little-known cable channel named Starz last spring, so I decided to educate myself in the way of the Gaiman while I was in vacation. I'm well-aware the series was adapted for television by two gentlemen named Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (Logan, Alien Covenant), but it's really the fuss behind the award-winning novel I was curious about. The characters and the original universe Neil Gaiman created with bits and scraps of classic mythology. Is American Gods worth watching? I would give it a tentative yes? It's a smart and multilayered show that kind of disappears up its own ass about two thirds into the season.
What is American Gods about?
So, American Gods is the story of Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) *, an ex-convict coming home to bury his wife after three years in the penitentiary. She literally dies a couple days before his early release for good behavior, so Shadow finds himself in front of nothing. He meets a mysterious man (Ian McShane) on the plane to Indiana who offers him a job as a chauffeur/assistant for a lofty weekly fee. Together, they travel through America to meet a series of people Shadow's boss is trying to convince to attend a reunion in Wisconsin.
The more Shadow hangs out with the strange old Mr. Wednesday, the more reality is falling apart around him: he meets a belligerent man who can make gold appear out of thin air (the underrated Pablo Schreiber), he is hanged by 3D-printed people with no face and saved by someone who slaughtered them and perhaps the most perplexing occurrence, Shadow's wife Laura (Emily Browning) is brought back from the grave by a strange twist of fate. There's a war brooding under the surface or reality and Shadow Moon unwittingly finds himself in the middle of it.
Why is American Gods smart?
Simply put, American Gods is an allegory for the secularization of Occidental society. The gradual abandonment of religious values if you will. Given that it's a pretty literal allegory, the gods of classic mythology going to war against technology, media and branding, it explores the theme of worship in a clever way. It's not a new idea that human beings never stopped worshiping despite an overall secularization of the world. Theologian Walter Wink argued that people worshiped symbols of power: financial institutions, corporations, successful people, etc. And he wasn't wrong. American Gods is a reflection of this idea.
See, Mr Wednesday and his pals are looking for faith. The more people show faith in gods, the more powerful they are but in order to gain faith, they have to show power. Ability to affect and control their everyday life. Technology, media and branding have a monopoly on the faithful that Wednesday is trying to break. Even for people who claim to believe in higher power, it's often a question of personal values more than it is a question of fear and respect. Being roaster on social media and going viral is infinitely more terrifying to someone in 2017 than the vengeance of Anubis. I don't think anyone will argue with me there. So that is why American Gods is kind of cool. It addresses the power secular institutions have over us in a very colorful and whimsical way without shoving a religious message down your throat.
Why did I lose patience with the American Gods adaptation?
The fault is not Neil Gaiman's. The man wrote an 800 pages, universally celebrate novel and it's not difficult to understand why from the series. It's tight, subtle and delivers a rather powerful message in a whimsical and non-judgmental way. But about six episodes into season one of American Gods, it started getting really, really slow and really, really stale, so I turned to Josie and asked her what the fuck? She told me it's where the show starts straying from the novel more heavily. It starts straying away from the narrative too in order to explore characters backstories. And you know, when a series does that six episodes into an eight episodes season, I'm starting to wonder if it'll deliver.
American Gods' showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green are obviously trying to milk at least another season of the show and I'm not sure it was the right thing to do. The novel is a self-sustaining business, but you got to read it all the way through, right? You can't read 400 pages of a book one year and 400 pages the next and expect to be fulfilled. It doesn't work like that. The original art wasn't thought like that and it transpires as American Gods flames out like a wet firecracker in the last two episodes. It was meant to be a twelve or thirteen episodes season and maybe go the Game of Thrones way if they wanted to extend into season two. I'm sure Neil Gaiman would've been up for it, whether he would've been involved in the writing process or not.
I find no fault to American Gods' storyline. It is what it is, a unique and whimsical supernatural drama, but I found the delivery to be shoddy and opportunistic. I might tune-in to season two in order to get my goddamned closure, but I would've advise watching season one alone like I wouldn't advice cutting The Fellowship of the Ring in halves with scissors and experiencing it in non-consecutive years. Try it if you have an interest in questions of reality and worship, but I'd advise you wait until the damn this is complete.
* This show definitely had everything for me to hate it. It just didn't quite happen.