‘American Gods’ Season 1: Unholy War

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It’s a good thing “American Gods” was renewed for a second season. If it hadn’t been, the finale would have been one of the most esoteric and strange ones ever. Not that I’m complaining, mind you- it was a suitably weird pseudo-ending for one of the most gonzo shows ever to air on television, bar none. I can only imagine what non-book readers made of all this.

Hell, even for book readers, there were enough tweaks and re-imaginings to keep one guessing, that’s for sure. Lord knows- or your God of choice- this thing threatened to go off the rails at nearly every turn. Yet, there was enough material taken directly from the source to keep book fans satisfied overall- or at least this fan, I should say.

As my loyal readers know, I was very much looking forward to seeing the House on the Rock scene. Alas, I will have to wait until next season for that, but it was at least clearly alluded to, and the characters were quite literally headed in that direction, so at least we know it will likely happen next season.

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In the meantime, I was very happy to see one of my favorite passages in the book- the extended tale of Essie- present and accounted for in all its glory, in “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney,” just when I thought it wasn’t going to happen. In an interesting move, the show opted to have star Emily Browning play her, helping to directly tie the material into the show in a way the book did only tangentially.

In addition, they likewise tied Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) into the action in a way that was also not present in the book, but much appreciated. Indeed, just keeping Mad Sweeney around in general was much appreciated, given that he drops out of the book far too soon for my liking.

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As such, some of the changes made to the source material, though occasionally pretty radical, have been most welcome. Indeed, it’s like an alternate take on the book, not unlike Stephen King’s original “The Stand” vs. “The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition,” where certain events and characters have been changed, to flesh out, slightly modernize and update the material.

Interestingly, author Neil Gaiman announced that a second volume of “American Gods” would be forthcoming, and that he had worked directly with showrunners, head writers and executive producers Bryan Fuller and Michael Green to make sure that, despite the changes they made, that the new material wouldn’t “step on the toes” of the sequel.

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What’s more, he also gave them the skinny on what would happen next, all the better to lay the groundwork for the future installment. What that means is that, obviously, some of what we’re seeing and hearing here most likely serves as hints as to what may come in the sequel, which is pretty cool.

Knowing that the author not only approved the changes, but welcomed them, and made sure that, in fleshing out the material some for the television adaptation, the writers didn’t go completely off the rails is a big relief, because there were definitely some changes that made me a little nervous.

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Really, though, a lot of it amounts to a reshuffling of the material, placing certain events later in the narrative than they were in the book, while moving some others up to the forefront before they were revealed in the book. Though it could be a little jarring at times for book readers, overall, it worked for me, and more importantly, it helped with the forward momentum of the show considerably.

Put another way, where the book is more leisurely paced- in a good way- that doesn’t always make for good television. By reshuffling the deck, as it were, the show lets things unfold in a way that actually works better than they did in the book, even if they changed a few things along the journey in a way that was occasionally dubious.

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But, for me, at least, the good of their doing that far outweighed the bad. It’s not at all unlike what Fuller did for “Hannibal,” in fact, and I loved that for the most part, as well. It also helps to keep the material fresh, and keeps book readers guessing as to how the show will continue to differ from the book, making them unsure of what will happen next, which wouldn’t be the case if it was a beat-for-beat adaptation.

While occasionally such changes to the source material can be frustrating- see my article on the forthcoming “Dark Tower” movie here, for instance- here, it worked for me. Besides, the joy of seeing things from the book I either thought I’d never see or were too “radical” to make the cut (the Bilquis opening scene, Media as Lucille Ball, the whole Salim bit with the Djinn, etc.) definitely tops the mild frustration I’ve felt from the way they’ve moved things around here and there.

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The season proper ended with, instead of the House on the rock scene, a sort of muted battle between the “New Gods” and Wednesday, with a valuable assist from Ostara, aka Easter (Kristen Chenoweth, a vet of Fuller’s previous series “Pushing Daisies”). Chenoweth’s Broadway background as Good Witch Glinda in “Wicked” made her perfect for the role here, which was equal parts seductive and intimidating.

Visually stunning, “Come to Jesus” was a lot of fun, between all the titular Jesuses (Jesi?) roaming around, to the lush color scheme and costuming of the party at Easter’s swanky digs, which split the difference between “Gone With the Wind” and something out of Architectural Digest. It was also a kick to see Jeremy Davies crop up as “Jesus Prime,” especially so soon after seeing him as a dirtbag blackmailer on “Twin Peaks,” to say nothing of his past gig as Charlie Manson.

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We also had a full reunion of most of the main characters within the episode, save Mr. Ibis (Demore Barnes) and Anubis (Chris Obi), including a welcome reappearance of Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones), who got to spin the tale this time around. In this case, it was the back-story of Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), which spanned the ages, including a fun detour in the 70’s, featuring a great new song by Debbie Harry, of Blondie fame, working in tandem with show composer Brian Reitzell.

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On a side note, I can’t recommend the soundtrack enough, BTW, for you film/TV score enthusiasts. While mostly instrumental- like I said, it’s the score- it does feature a few songs, including one with Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson and a few with former Screaming Trees/erstwhile Queens of the Stone Age vocalist Mark Lanegan. As for the older songs populated throughout the series, you can easily find them on iTunes. For a comprehensive list of the pop songs featured, check out this site.

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As we’ve seen on the show, the “New Gods” are attempting to “recruit” the “Old Gods,” not so much because they need them, as they want to render them somewhat impotent- see the episode with Vulcan, “A Murder of Gods.” However, with the recruitment of Bilquis, we see that sometimes recruitment can be useful as well, though we don’t quite see what the “New Gods” have planned for her just yet. It clearly involves the House on the Rock, though, which is exciting.

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All in all, this was a pretty enjoyable season. Yes, it had its faults. I can only imagine what non-book readers made of all this before the plot was finally laid out. It’s a sprawling, ambitious endeavor, to be sure, and, as such, could be a little messy and meandering at times. For instance, it took three episodes from the first re-appearance of Laura in Shadow’s hotel room to get to the actual interaction between the two. Though, don’t get me wrong, I very much liked the expanded back-story of Laura and Shadow’s relationship.

Still, these are minor complaints, compared to the joy of seeing one of my favorite books making it to the small screen in mostly faithful terms- far better than I might have expected. I really don’t object to most of the changes, though it certainly helps knowing that Gaiman is involved and is shepherding the process to make sure they don’t go too far astray from the source material.

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Yes, it was pretty far out at times, but then, so was the book. The fact that they managed to bring a lot of it to life in a way that wasn’t ludicrous or laughable is a minor miracle in and of itself. In some ways, I think the meandering parts were more about working to get a consistent vibe for the show and what it needed to be than anything else. Chalk up the more questionable parts to growing pains, and just be glad that a show as gloriously weird as “American Gods” exists, much less that it managed to get itself renewed.

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What did you think of the overall season? What was your favorite of the Gods? How about the other main characters? For book readers, were you happy with the changes or frustrated by them? Does it help knowing that Gaiman approved them? Are you excited for the prospect of a Season Two? Did you wish this season was longer?

What would you change about the show’s approach moving forward? For instance, did you like the “Coming to America” vignettes? Or did you find them intrusive and sometimes long-winded? (I was very happy with the Essie segment, which was probably my favorite such passage in the book, and I liked that the approaches/visual style of the God stories changed from tale to tale.) Or could you have stood a little more of that sort of thing? (Some book fans liked that stuff more than they did the Shadow Moon parts.)

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Sound off on this and more down below in the comments section, and see you next season, hopefully. Thanks for reading!