The mythological melting pot of strange, stunning ‘American Gods’
If you’re anything like your humble reviewer, you are about a decade deep into suffering from acute superhero fatigue (ASF), a condition that finds innocent media consumers aesthetically overwhelmed by a fast spreading rash of jacked-up titans, guardians, mutants, and bat . . . people.
With every reboot, revival, and revamp of each forgotten idol and fruitful franchise, my soul sinks: Is this what we’ve settled on? Do we really need another hero? And is there no one who can save us? (Oh wait, scratch that. I forgot: No more heroes.)
Fortunately for those similarly afflicted, the new Starz series “American Gods,” based on Neil Gaiman’s Hugo- and Nebula award-winning 2001 novel of the same name, offers a cure for moderate to severe sagaphobia. This isn’t hero worship, quite. The gods of Gaiman’s rowdy pantheon have serious issues. Call it a god complex.
Like any spirit quest, there’s only so much I can tell you at the outset of the journey ahead of you, but in broad strokes “American Gods” follows a man named Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle, stay with me here) as he exits prison and enters a world dramatically altered from the one he left behind. A chance (which, we can assume, does not really exist) encounter with a mysterious, nosy, and deeply furrowed figure named Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) sets Shadow on a strange new path as his bodyguard — as reductive a job title as there ever was.
Along the way, the time-hopping narrative introduces a pantheon of gods preparing for a showdown of epic proportions — mythologies fixin’ to tangle.
There are old gods like a hard-drinking, hard-brawling leprechaun (Pablo Schreiber) who leaves behind him a trail of carnage and coins; and Bilquis, Queen of Sheba (Yetide Badaki), who presides over a sex (?) scene that I will try and fail to ever forget.
And there are the new gods, like the bratty, shape-shifting deity of data, Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), and Media, who manifests as Lucille Ball (or Gillian Anderson) in a superstore grid of flatscreens.
Elsewhere there are sexy down-low Jinns (i.e. genies) driving taxis; crotchey Slavic spirits playing checkers and (maybe?) growing old (Cloris Leachman gives a superb performance as Zorya Vechernyaya).
Most of the characters in “American Gods” feel conjured from the tense stillness of certain Coen brothers films or coaxed from the odd overworld of David Lynch. It’s an effect that comes courtesy of showrunners Bryan Fuller (who created “Wonderfalls,” “Pushing Daisies,” and “Hannibal”) and Michael Green (whose background in comic books has led to producing “Heroes” and co-writer credits on films including “Logan” and the forthcoming “Blade Runner 2049” and “Alien: Covenant”), but has just as much to do with the vastness of Gaiman’s vision, which the series strives and succeeds to match.
Like Gaiman’s prose, the scope of “American Gods” can leap from the microbial to the galactic without abandoning the story line. Visually, it’s relentlessly stunning. One scene takes us into a dive bar (beloved from the book) built into the yawning maw of a crocodile; another scene sends us careening through a cosmos that feels both visceral and virtual. Light and color costar in every shot.
And Gaiman’s flair for uncompromising detail also informs the show’s more gruesome moments. Gods don’t duke it out in court after all; so limb-severing swordfights a la “Game of Thrones” are reliably notched up with fever dream blood floods a la “The Shining.” Be ready.
Also, mom and dad, apart from a selection of Jesuses, Gaiman’s aren’t the gods you drop in to see on Sundays. The sex in “American Gods” — all kinds of it, really — offers an unobstructed (i.e. gods’ eye view) of the proceedings, which often swerve into decidedly unholy territory. Take it for what it is — Gaiman’s attempt to destabilize the notion of a dominant sexual morality and restore the erotic body to a station of sanctity — but maybe put the kids to bed first.
While the four episodes presented to critics for preview offered just enough bearings to determine that bearings are of limited use in the universe of “American Gods,” it’s safe to say even this early that it’s one of the most imaginative, adventurous, and deeply weird experiments on television — an entrancingly trippy metaphorical melee that elevates an investigation of American identity to a supernatural plane.
In doing so, “American Gods” makes Gotham’s problems seem embarrassingly mortal. But this urgency feels twofold — like any hallucinatory vision, it may not last long.
Starring Ricky Whittle, Ian McShane, Emily Browning, Pablo Schreiber, Crispin Glover, Yetide Badaki, Bruce Langley, Gillian Anderson, Kristin Chenoweth, Peter Stormare, Cloris Leachman, Orlando Jones, Jonathan Tucker, Demore Barnes
On Starz, Sunday at 9 p.m.