Anticipation is high for Starz’s newest drama, AMERICAN GODS, premiering tonight. Based on the popular book by British geek-god Neil Gaiman, and developed by the great Bryan Fuller (along with Logan’s Michael Green), it tells the story of a mortal man caught in the middle of a war between gods, old and new, as things come to a head between the factions. It’s unknown if our hero is working for the right team or not, but the danger is real, and the urgency is immediate.
AMERICAN GODS has a lot going for it, both behind and in front of the camera. While it is not as highly stylized as other Fuller projects (Hannibal, Pushing Daisies), he is able to make the fantasy sequences amazing, vivid, and imaginative. Lead Ricky Whittle (The 100) and lesser known performers like Bruce Langley (Deadly Waters) and Yetide Badaki (Sequestered) quickly establish themselves as people to watch, terrific in their roles. The bench is deep with familiar faces, too, including the likes of Cloris Leachman (Young Frankenstein, Raising Hope), Peter Stormare (Fargo), Emily Browning (Sucker Punch), Crispin Glover (Back to the Future), Pablo Schreiber (Orange Is the New Black), Gillian Anderson (The X-Files), Kristin Chenoweth (Wicked), Orlando Jones (Sleep Hollow), Betty Gilpin (Nurse Jackie), Jeremy Davies (Lost), Jonathan Tucker (Kingdom), Joel Murray (Mad Men), Beth Grant (The Mindy Project), and, of course, Ian McShane (Deadwood).
If a long list of talented names doesn’t impress you, though it should in this case, I’d like to stress how well cast each of them are. Stormare brings a certain likability to his chillingly creepy Czernobog. Anderson IS Lucy Ricardo, talking out of the screen of the television. Schreiber will seriously make you think twice about teasing a leprechaun. Browning is haunting as the deceased wife who doesn’t seem deserving of our protagonist’s love, and yet has it deeply. McShane watches over it all with a bemused charm that doesn’t allow audiences to question for a moment why Shadow Moon (Whittle) does what Mr. Wednesday (McShane) tells him to.
It’s been a few years since I read the book, but the two hours of AMERICAN GODS I’ve seen feel very faithful to it. This show finds a way to be episodic while maintaining the important through-line of the novel. The format of a road trip is helpful, as there are built in stops and sequences along the way. But there are also the threats of Technical Boy (Langley) and the erotic side trips with Bilquis (Badaki) that prove there’s something more to look forward to than just the next god to encounter.
AMERICAN GODS is sure to work both because of its quality, and because it shares similarities with another network hit, Outlander. Outlander is also based on a novel, and strings along a narrative that stays tight on a couple of characters, with most of the cast only appearing in a small number of episodes. That can be frustrating for those who want more Mr. Nancy (Jones) immediately, and you will. But at the same time, it keeps the plot purer in that Shadow and Mr. Wednesday are the people that count most, and the rest of the cast is truly there to support them.
I knew I would be blown away going into AMERICAN GODS, and it did not disappoint my high expectations. It’s gripping, has terrific pacing, feels very authentic, even in the elements that completely lack realism, and has a strong point of view. Fantasy won’t be for everyone, and this is definitely fantasy, but it also contains social commentary that’s worth paying attention to, along with some stellar performances. I’ll be shocked if this doesn’t help Starz get on the Emmy stage.
AMERICAN GODS premieres tonight at 9/8c on Starz.