TV Reviews

TV Review: American Gods Is Brilliant…I Have Absolutely No Idea What’s Going On

Watching the pilot for Starz’s big new series American Gods is a real Homer-watching-TwinPeaks situation:

Brillint because how could a new show based on an acclaimed Neil Gaiman novel, adapted by Hannibal’s Bryan Fuller and starring Deadwood’s Ian McShane be anything other than perfection?

I have absolutely no idea what’s going on because (as someone who hasn’t read the novel) the pilot is astonishingly disjointed and artfully obtuse. It takes the entire hour for the narrative to feel as if its finally starting to flow naturally, and director David Slade’s consistent use of slow-motion to accentuate the many visual flights of fancy might look gorgeous on a shot-by-shot basis but also borders on Zack Snyder-level slow-mo for slow-mo’s sake. Yet you’ll also be reluctant to look away for fear of missing out on the next crazy thing lurking around the corner, like a bore with fiery eyes advancing toward the camera or a character’s face suddenly melting in Claymation.

When you actually try to describe the plot it doesn’t sound that complicated [spoiler alert]: fresh out of prison, Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle, who takes nearly the entire pilot to finally find his footing) is hired to be a bodyguard for the mysterious and clearly secretive Mr. Wednesday (McShane, wonderful as always). Strangeness quickly ensues as Shadow is forced into a bar fight over a gold coin with an angry, tall leprechaun who doesn’t take kindly to those who assume all leprachauns are short. Then Shadow travels back home for a funeral and is abducted, thrown in the back of a supernaturally long limo and shaken down by a tech-obsessed, self-proclaimed god and his gang of henchman lifted straight out of Clockwork Orange. Cue up an operatically violent fight scene/attempted lynching, and then roll the closing credits and “This Season on American Gods” trailer.

In other words, a seemingly normal man is exposed to a strange new supernatural world via a wise stranger who knows more than he’s letting on.

Okay. All right. Now we’re talking here. That’s some Joseph Campbell shit.

But I forgot to mention the random, completely unexplained scene in which an unnamed black woman has sex with an older divorcee, and at the moment of climax she gradually sucks his entire body into her vagina.

Right. So, um, I don’t think Joseph Campbell covered that. Is this maybe just a really, really kinky, avante-garde hero’s journey? A hero’s journey that has been art directed within an inch of its life? Sure, let’s go with that.

The general idea is that Shadow has accidentally wandered into a war between old and new gods, with Mr. Wednesday being an old god and the menacing stranger in the limo a new god. You partially pick up on that via dialogue, but also might simply know it if you’ve ever read the back cover description of Gaiman’s novel.  Plus, the notion of the gods interacting with humanity is somewhat thematically set-up by the voice-over accompanying the comically violent opening scene depicting the Vikings’ quickly thwarted attempt to colonize America centuries before Columbus.

However, as THR argued:

The problem for American Gods in the early going is that its creators’ wild ambition is running a bit amok and interfering with its execution meaning the most pressing distraction — more so that the buckets of blood and intense sexuality — is trying to understand what’s going on and what the series is all about, beyond the fact that old gods and new gods are about to go to war. The series is both rooted in realism and rife with otherworldly activity. It’s as visually appealing as it is mystifying, like a comic book come to stoned life.

Whether you’ll buy into any of this depends on how much the visual flourishes make up for the lack of narrative coherency for you, and how much patience you’re willing to grant this show based on its creative pedigree. In that way, American Gods is this year’s Preacher.  If you liked Hannibal and don’t mind something with a similar visual aesthetic but looser story structure and less-compelling central characters then you’ll likely stick with this well beyond the pilot. Plus, if you’ve read the book then, well, you’re the target audience because Fuller and his co-writer/co-executive producer Michael Green show no interest whatsoever in making this series palatable to anyone unfamiliar with the source material. Either way, one thing is abundantly clear: American Gods is going to be gorgeous to look at. Once it gets wherever it’s going it might be amazing.

What about you? Have you read the novel? What did you think of the pilot? Let me know in the comments.


  1. I haven’t read the books but I did see the trailer for the series and the trailer gives away the secret.


    There are old gods and new gods. Gods get their “power” through worship.

    The old gods and new are at war — and the new gods have the advantage of being somehow related to technology, and thus has a lot of worshipers.

    The black lady is one of the old gods. She was spent and weak, but when she seduced the old fat guy to worship her, it gave her power and renewed her body.

    I’m super curious to know how the leprauchan fits in. Ally? Enemy? Both?

    And now our protagonist apparently knows the trick of pulling gold coins out of thin air. Very curious to see where that goes.

    Also dying to know what the significance of the coin slipping into the grave of his wife.

    I very much enjoyed the pilot and looking forward to seeing if they can keep up the quality.

    1. “The new gods have the advantage of being somehow related to technology, and thus has a lot of worshipers.”

      I gathered that was what the Clockwork Orange-esque fella in the limo was going on about.

      “I’m super curious to know how the leprauchan fits in. Ally? Enemy? Both?”

      Same here. Is he just a hooligan? Or more important?

  2. Well, I’m here to say that reading the books won’t necessarily help you interpret what’s happening onscreen any better. The general plot ideas are the same as in the book, but visually. its nothing like the book. The show is much more, I was gonna say baroque, but the actual term would be Marie Antoinette/ French Rococo levels of busyness. iIs putting it mildly to say its a visually rich show, and if you have one of those digital bigscreen TVs, it will probably give you a headache. I loved it!

    Everything is saturated with color, and all of the images have a hyperrealistic feel to them that makes your eyeballs twitch. Actually the book was helpful in explaining the interstitial scenes that didnt have anything to do with Shadow’s part of the story. Those inbetween scenes are to introduce the viewers to various old gods who will be a major part of the narrative. The black woman we saw was Bilquis, an African fertility/love goddess of Egyptian origin. And that scene with the Vikings was an explanation of how Wednesday (one of Odin’s avatars) was brought to America.

    Yes, we’ll get to see the significance of the coin falling into his wife’s grave.
    It helps if you dont think of the gods as being good or bad guys. Theyre just two groups in opposition to each other, and since Shadow has become allied with one side, he’s become a major person of interest to both sides.

    1. ” I was gonna say baroque, but the actual term would be Marie Antoinette/ French Rococo levels of busyness. Is putting it mildly to say its a visually rich show. Everything is saturated with color, and all of the images have a hyperrealistic feel to them that makes your eyeballs twitch.”

      Look at you, throwing down “baroque” and “Marie Antoinette/ French Rococo.” Those are the perfect descriptions, though.

      I gathered that the black woman was a goddess feeding off of those who worship her, but I hadn’t made that connection between Wednesday and the Viking opening, although I should have since my Thor fandom led me to looking up which Norse gods gave us the names for our days of the week (Thor for Thursday, Freyja for Friday, etc.).

      I know all sorts of sites put out their guides for American Gods, but I avoided every one of them because I have grown weary of all the advanced reading that so many TV shows now call for. I thought I could just watch the American Gods pilot, and figure it out on my own. Yeah, I was wrong. So, thanks for responding to clear it all up for me.

  3. You’re welcome.
    Yeah, every now and then my art school vocabulary bubbles up in my brain. This mostly seems to happen in relation to Bryan Fullers shows, so I’m blaming him.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: