First Look: ‘American Gods’ Episodes 1–4

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When I say first “look,” I mean I can tell you what I thought of the first four episodes of American Gods and what I thought about while I was watching them, but that’s pretty much it. There’s a very strict no spoiler policy surrounding American Gods, as well there should be. Besides, as a huge fan of the novel, and now the STARZ original series, I would never ruin the experience for anyone else. Thus, you may proceed freely and unencumbered by fear of accidental word vomit.

Neil Gaiman’s novel is polarizing: it seems people either love it or hate it. I loved it. I still love it. I’ve read it at least once a year almost every year since it was originally published. I’m currently reading it in Spanish because reasons and because it feels like America to read a book written by a British author in English in translation. Or at least what America should be.

Having your favorite print property translated to visual media can be… well, hell, if you’re a book nerd like me, it’s anxiety provoking. This story is important to me. It’s part of who I am, part of my worldview. It has influenced my own writing. It is my, “oh, crap, you can do that?” book (“that” being mixing mythology with a road trip story, science fiction, fantasy, and a whole bunch of other amazing stuff). American Gods was my introduction to an author who has become an integral part of my reading life. I’ve spent almost two decades loving the book in Gaiman’s hands alone and having it passed along, even knowing he is heavily involved… it was rough. Then, casting announcements started to appear. First promo shots. Those phenomenal OMG character posters. I allowed myself to become cautiously optimistic.

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Now that I’ve seen the first four episodes, I am all in and, my friends, if you feel any of the aforementioned ways about the book, or even if you just really liked it, you will be too.

I will tell you, straight out of the gate, American Gods has moments of extreme violence. There is blood (turns out some of it was even real. Ask me again in a couple of weeks) and brawling and something more intense I don’t have a good word for. There is also some extremely graphic very beautiful, touching sex accompanied by sexual… weirdness not for the faint of heart and definitely not for the kidlets (for those of you who have read the book, you can probably guess. For those of you who haven’t… let’s just say Vanessa and her “International Women’s Day” have nothing on Bilquis). I tell you this not to dissuade you from watching but to prepare you for elements of the show which may come as a shock to the uninitiated; some of it even surprised me and I had a decent idea of the possibilities.

Bryan Fuller, of course, has a way of making violence oddly beautiful and even the most horrible of the show’s moments is visually stunning (which I feel very strange saying) in a way only he, and his co-show runner Michael Green (writer of the incredible Logan), could manage. Fuller uses his signature style to great advantage in this story of gods and men, capturing moments of confusion and awe with altered timing, rich color, tight focus, surreal lighting, and incredible detail, and contrasting them with standard, but still lovely, cinematography for the more mundane bits of the tale. The split style enhances the seemingly impossible duality the main character, Shadow, is experiencing and allows the viewer to immerse fully with him.

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The casting is impeccable and even where interpretation strays from the novel, it was well done and it made sense. Ian McShane, who was originally pegged for the role of Czernobog, filled to absolute perfection by Peter Stormareis Wednesday, just as Orlando Jones is Anansi. Yetide Badaki was born to play Bilquis, Emily Browning is a fascinating Laura, and Kristen Chenoweth the incarnation of Easter. And don’t get me started on Cloris Leachman as Zorya Vechernyaya–I’ll never stop. And then, of course, there’s Ricky Whittle, our Shadow Moon; I’ve never been entirely sure what Shadow looks like (which I’ve read is deliberate on Gaiman’s part) but a very specific voice has lived as his in my head for the last seventeen years and it took me about half an episode to reconcile it to Whittle’s, but in all other ways, from the moment he appeared, the fan girl in me screamed, “Yes! Yes! Oh ye, gods, that is Shadow.” The rapport between Shadow and Wednesday, without which the story simply doesn’t work, is one thousand percent spot-on and, no joke, the first time McShane called him, “M’boy,” I almost peed myself with the visceral excitement of the world coming to life (told you I was a nerd). It helps, I’m sure, that Whittle and McShane have a fantastic rapport in real life as well (they were together in our roundtable session at the New York event) which they credit, in part, to being from the same part of England and supporting the same football team. Because of course.

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The soundtrack for the show is quite good, though I did have a bit of a hard time with the original score in episode one: it’s lovely but it’s in an odd key with an odd cadence and I experience mysophonia which reacts strongly to both of those musical elements (there’s music I literally can’t listen to because it triggers panic attacks). I was able to adapt, however, when I realized that, like the visuals, the score was intended to bring the audience more actively into Shadow’s experience and that in the places in which I felt uncomfortable, the character was also uncomfortable. The discordance was a part of the story which allowed me to move with it more easily.

There are, of course, changes from the book. Many of them are small and if you haven’t read American Gods in a while (or ever), they won’t register. A few of the changes/additions are pretty massive but they serve the story and the characters well. There’s one in particular I may have had more difficult time with before my nerdy godfather, GeekDad Jamie Greene, invited me to co-interview the two halves of James S.A. Corey on The Great Big Beautiful Podcast and we spent some time chatting about the translation of a story from novel to screen and the differences between an engaging book and an engaging screen play. Having spoken with Gaiman, Fuller, Green, and the actors involved, I can’t muster a single objection and, in fact, I’m plain excited about pretty much everything. Gaiman also revealed there are lines on the show which may seem like throwaway bits now but are the “grapples upon which the next book will be anchored.” That’s right kids: that second American Gods book we’ve been waiting for? It will happen. “It’s on my list,” Gaiman said, which is, of course, ever lengthening. It has been moved up the propriety ladder, however, in hopes the show will get several more seasons, enough to create a need for new material (no, there’s no confirmation a season 2, don’t start hyperventilating quite yet), though, Gaiman explained, it isn’t quite at the top.

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So.

Let go your fears and anxieties, fellow American Gods geeks. You’re going to love it. For those of you who haven’t read the book, it may take a bit longer to piece everything together but be patient–it’s worth it, I assure you. Also, in case you couldn’t tell, I highly recommend the book. If you can, get hold of the author preferred edition, which was published in 2011 for the book’s 10th anniversary; originally 200,000 words, Gaiman edited out 50,000 for the first print run but was able to ad 25,000 of those back in for the author preferred. I can’t tell you exactly what’s different but it feels more complete somehow.

What can I say? American Gods, in any form, is a magical thing.

American Gods premieres April 30th on STARZ (US) and Amazon Prime (everywhere else).