Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel, American Gods, took so long to become a television series that many fans understandably worried that it might in the end prove unadaptable. For a few years, a Gaiman-authored screenplay languished at HBO. Finally, Gaiman and his book found their way to Starz, the upstart premium cable network best known for its impressive adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s epic, time-traveling historical romance, Outlander. Bryan Fuller, creator of the grisly but stylish serial-killer drama Hannibal and the sappy but stylish comedy Pushing Daisies, signed on to run the show along with Michael Green, who had worked with Fuller on Heroes. All this might still have gone terribly wrong; Fuller’s archness isn’t an obvious match for Gaiman’s wonderstruck fantasy. Instead, the TV version of American Gods has turned out to be, miraculously, just right.
The premise of the novel creeps up on its readers, and the series takes an only slightly less oblique approach. A bit of patience will be required from viewers who haven’t read the book. The improbably named Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), a small-time grifter with a knack for sleight of hand, is about to be released from a three-year prison stint. At home, in a small town somewhere in the Midwest, waits his adored wife, Laura (Emily Browning). But three days ahead of schedule, Shadow gets called to the warden’s office; he’s being let out early because Laura has just been killed in an automobile accident. On the plane home, he ends up seated next to a shady but roguishly charming gent who calls himself Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane, in a role he was born to play). He plies Shadow with Jack and Cokes and tries to hire him for some unspecified job, which Shadow prudently declines. Mr. Wednesday possesses an unsettling amount of information about Shadow, and the way he keeps popping up in random places along the ex-con’s journey home is, Shadow declares, “creepy.”
Shadow does of course end up working for the garrulous Wednesday, but only after every last shred of the life he hoped to return to has been thoroughly pulverized. He’s a classic hard-boiled hero, a man of few words with nothing left to lose, and as such heroes often do, he gets beat up a lot in Wednesday’s service. Apparently he’s just hired muscle, so why do Wednesday’s very peculiar enemies seem so intent on hiring Shadow themselves? The two men cruise down the forlorn highways of the heartland in Bessie, Wednesday’s stately old black Cadillac, scamming the gullible and staying in the sort of vintage motels where you half expect to spot Humbert Humbert and Lolita checking into the room next door. “America,” Wednesday philosophizes from the passenger seat, “is the only country in the world that wonders what it is.”
Wednesday, it gradually emerges, is traveling the nation to rally a motley assortment of down-at-heel deities. Every god anyone has every believed in on American soil still scrounges out a living here, however reduced their circumstances. Ancient Egyptian divinities work as morticians in Cairo, Illinois, and a love goddess named Bilquis (a queenly, sultry Yetide Badaki) hunts for worshippers on Tinder—then literally devours them, just not through her mouth. Wednesday’s comrades are old gods, and he’s trying to persuade them to launch a gang war against a set of new gods who represent technology, media (Gillian Anderson, impersonating Lucille Ball and cooing at Shadow from TV screens), and … well, the group’s globalist leader, Mr. World, is not so easy to pin down.
Crispin Glover plays Mr. World, another example of the series’ brilliant casting. Looking forward to the introduction of Czernobog (a Slavic deity who kills steer in a Chicago slaughterhouse), I thought idly that Peter Stormare would be the ideal actor for the role, and sure enough: Peter Stormare it is. Other perfect choices include Cloris Leachman as a gloomy old goddess once in charge of guarding the constellations and Orlando Jones as Mr. Nancy (Anansi), a trickster figure from West African folklore. Jones first appears stirring up a revolt in the bowels of slaver’s ship, one of a series of vignettes from American history that, while unrelated to the main plot, fill out the series’ world.
In the novel, these vignettes sometimes felt superfluous, but they supply many of the series’ emotional highlights. The vignette that opens the third episode is the moment where American Gods signals the depth of its ambition. On the strength of the first two episodes alone, the series could be lumped with a show like Preacher: fun, but bombastically dark, overpopulated by tormented men and soaked in the sort of baroque displays of gore that adolescent boys think of as terrifically daring. The episode “Head Full of Snow,” however, begins with an exquisitely tender vignette about a 61-year-old Arab woman in Queens who dies while cooking dinner for her family and is ushered into the afterlife by Anubis; they climb up a seemingly endless fire escape that finally lets them out onto a landscape of sand dunes.
Heady images—for example, the false mother in the novel Coraline, who has black buttons instead of eyes and wants to replace Coraline’s eyes with buttons too—are as central to Gaiman’s fiction as his storytelling. They allow him to summon an atmosphere of dreamy significance by suggesting much while stating relatively little. His images have a way of creeping into a reader’s imagination and putting down roots. Fuller seizes upon this aspect of the novel American Gods as a license to weave the narrative in and out of Shadow’s dream life, adapting the material to his own potent visual sensibility. At any given moment, American Gods might dish up a shot of a pretty girl plucking the moon from the sky or a miniature Bessie driving over billowing mini-marshmallows in a paper cup of hot chocolate or frost fingers branching across the glass pane of a photocopier. It’s possible to watch this series, drunk on a succession of sumptuous, inventive tableaux, without caring much that Whittle’s Shadow is a tad inert. To be fair to the actor, the script doesn’t give him all that much to work with early on, and Shadow will eventually become more than just Wednesday’s bodyguard. American Gods is a long, slow burn, but if it stays so true to the novel it’s based on, the bang, when it comes, will be unforgettable.