American Gods (Season 1): Let the Odyssey Begin

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I’m a massive fan of author Neil Gaiman, best-known to non-readers as the man behind the movies “Coraline” and “Stardust,” as well as the underrated previous TV miniseries “Neverwhere” and “Mirrormask,” so I was beyond thrilled when they announced a cable TV adaptation of his much-beloved “American Gods” novel, which has long been thought to be borderline unadaptable.

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Even better, Gaiman is on board as an executive producer, and the showrunners and co-writers are the equally lauded Bryan Fuller (TV’s “Hannibal,” “Pushing Daisies” and “Dead Like Me”) and Michael Green (TV’s “Heroes” and “Smallville” and the writer behind the superb “Logan” and the upcoming “Blade Runner” sequel, among others). If ever a crew of people could do this sprawling novel justice, it was this one.

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I’m happy to say, having watched the first few episodes: so far, so good. Thankfully, the show is on Starz, so you better believe the gloves are off, in terms of sex and violence. For the faint of heart, this is not. In the first scene alone, bodies are slashed and sliced in half in spectacularly gory, over-the-top fashion that will be familiar to fans of previous Starz fare like “Ash vs. Evil Dead” and the “Spartacus” series.

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Oh, and if readers were worried that such eye-opening, brain-melting scenes such as the one in which a grown man is sucked whole into a woman’s vagina during sex would make the cut- worry no more, it’s in there, and it is something. (The show doesn’t stop at one guy, I might add.) Like I said, this is not a show that’s going to be for everyone, for sure.

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It’s also expertly cast, with even the lesser-known actors inhabiting their roles nicely, such as leading man Ricky Whittle, best-known as Lincoln on CW’s “The 100,” doing a rock-solid job to go along with those rock-solid abs as Shadow Moon. Granted, the show changes things up a little here and there- for instance, the actor playing “Technical Boy,” Bruce Langley (“Deadly Waters”) is the polar opposite of the “fat kid” described in the book- but overall, it’s pretty dead-on.

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I can’t imagine fans of the book having a problem with Ian McShane (“Deadwood,” “American Horror Story: Asylum”) as the infamous Mr. Wednesday, though he did give me pause at first in the character’s first scene, in which he is shown adopting a wacked-out persona while he deals with an airline attendant. Of course, in true con man fashion- and Mr. Wednesday is nothing if not a con man with the best of them- it proves to be a big put-on, and McShane deftly slips into the “real” Wednesday shortly thereafter, and totally nails it.

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Likewise, Cloris Leachman (Frau Blücher from “Young Frankenstein”- cue the horse neigh) is just perfect as Zorya Vechernyaya- you won’t be able to read the novel without thinking of her from here on out, that’s for sure. I thought casting Peter Stormare (“Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski”) as Czernobog was inspired- he actually comes off as even more menacing here as the character does in the book, for my money- as is Orlando Jones as Mr. Nancy, aka Anansi, who has one hell of an introduction in episode 2.

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In fact, speaking of Mr. Nancy, I don’t know if I expected there to be asides like the ones in the book, i.e. the written interludes by Mr. Ibis (Demore Barnes, TV’s “12 Monkeys”) that crop up from time to time, as well as the oft-out-of-nowhere ones like the aforementioned vagina-engulfer Bilquis (Yetide Badaki, “Sequestered”) and The Jinn (Mousa Kraish, “Feed the Beast”), and yet, here they are, in all their splendor. (The Jinn only had a cameo as of the first two eps, but as I understand it, the scene in which he is introduced is coming up later in the season as well.)

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Hell, even the scene I least expected to be in there- Bilquis’ antics notwithstanding- the one in which Lucille Ball speaks to Shadow via his TV, saying some decidedly non-Lucy type things, is in there, and played by “The X-Files” and “Hannibal”-alum Gillian Anderson, no less! I just assumed there would be no way the Lucille Ball estate would possibly let anyone depict their beloved Lucy that way, outside of a book. I guess I was wrong. Can an adaptation of Clive Barker’s “Son of Celluloid” be that far off, in light of this? One can only hope.

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All in all, this is a pretty spot-on version of the book, with the series format allowing for a leisurely stroll through a sizable amount of the material at hand. Sure, some minor things are jettisoned, as to be expected, and others are reconfigured (the Lucy bit takes place in a Target-like store on a wall of TVs in public instead of in a hotel room, for instance), but I can’t say any of them bothered me that much.

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Indeed, I thought the scene in which Shadow’s late wife’s best friend Audrey (Betty Gilpin, “Elementary”) confronted him at the cemetery, which wasn’t even in the book, was among one of the most powerful scenes in the series to date, if not the most powerful. In the book, the character simply spits on the wife’s corpse and delivers the news as to how she dies to Shadow, which is pretty jarring, to be sure, but I thought the version here was even better, and certainly more affecting, as it expanded the material in a way that not only made perfect sense, but was more dramatically satisfying to the extent that I could see Gaiman himself being “Why didn’t I think of that?”

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Likewise, the shifting around of certain events is fine by me- I expect the scene in which Laura (Emily Browning, “Sucker Punch”), Shadow’s late wife, pays him a late night visit, will be coming up eventually, as the whole placing the gold coin into her grave was present and accounted for, and Shadow was indeed saved when he was beaten up and nearly hung to death by those (literally) faceless thugs, which I assume was Laura’s doing, even if we didn’t see her.

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I’m certainly looking forward to the memorable “House on the Rock” scene, least of all since I’ve never seen the real deal, save in pictures online. (Yep, it’s very much real.) I don’t know if the show was actually allowed to film there, but one can only hope. I don’t want to get too much into spoiler territory, for those who haven’t read the books, but from what I understand, the series only covers the first third or so of the book anyway, so hopefully they’ll get to the other cool stuff too, on down the line, assuming the show is renewed.

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Whatever the case, so good so far. I love the look of the show, the cinematography is pretty impressive and all over the place in the best of ways, adopting different looks to better approximate the different source material- i.e. the prison scenes are dark and gloomy, the dream sequences are weird and hazy, the scenes with Bilquis are properly surreal and the scenes with “Technical Boy” and “Lucille Ball”- aka “Media”- are brightly lit and nearly-overwhelmingly in-your-face, just as they are to Shadow himself.

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It’s a smart move, as most series tend to maintain the same look throughout, save maybe the occasional flashback or dream sequence. Here, we have a main character that’s not quite sure if he even is dreaming all of this or not, so it makes perfect sense that things would be presented in such a way that we’re not so sure, either, what’s real or what isn’t. Bryan Fuller in particular, is perfect for this material, with most of his series fitting that sort of vibe of being sort of trance-like throughout.

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Most of all, though, it’s just nice to see Gaiman’s material done right, after getting only so-so treatment to date. I mean, don’t get me wrong- I didn’t dislike “Coraline” and “Neverwhere” in particular, and “Mirrormask” and “Stardust” had their moments, but this to me, is far and away the most ambitious and true-to-the-source-material adaptation that has ever been attempted, even at only two episodes in.

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While it remains to be seen if they will stick the landing- if they even GET to the landing, as there’s no assurance they will get that far as of yet- like I said, I’m really digging what I’m seeing thus far. Hopefully, this will fare better, viewer-wise, than some of Fuller’s previous efforts. I’m still smarting over losing “Hannibal,” for instance, and part of me will always long for another season of “Wonderfalls,” even though I know that’s NEVER going to happen. (Then again, we got “Twin Peaks” back and I certainly never saw THAT coming, so who knows?)

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Whatever the case, I’m loving this so far, and can’t wait to see more. Hopefully, audiences, even those unfamiliar with Gaiman’s material, will too. Besides, I’ve still got my fingers crossed for that inevitable “Sandman” series. Don’t we all, fellow Gaiman fans?

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Join me in a few weeks for another look at the show at around the midway point, and be sure and let me know what you thought down below, especially if you also read the book. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, regardless, even if you didn’t. Thanks for reading!