Get ready for some more Peak Weird TV.
American Gods, the unconventional new drama from Starz, is the latest mind-bending show to go all-in on off-the-wall. How so, you ask? For starters, the premiere episode features, among other things, Vikings, a towering Leprechaun, a ghostly white buffalo with flaming eyes, a massive tree with talons at the end of its branches and a vicious gang of faceless cyber thugs called the Children. Also, at one point, a man is swallowed whole by a woman’s vagina.
At the core of all this strangeness is a drama centering on a brewing battle between the gods of ancient myth and upstart objects of worship. Caught in the middle is Shadow Moon (The 100‘s Ricky Whittle), an ex-con who gains early release from prison under tragic circumstances. He soon finds himself in the employ of one Mr. Wednesday (Deadwood star Ian McShane), an enigmatic magic man who has a vested interest in the outcome of the conflict. The show’s all-star ensemble also features Orlando Jones as the trickster god Mr. Nancy, Crispin Glover as a powerful goon named Mr. World, Orange Is the New Black‘s Pablo Schreiber as whiskey-swilling, fightin’ Irish leprechaun Mad Sweeney and a chameleonic Gillian Anderson as the seductive cathode-ray deity known as “Media.”
This highest of high-concept ideas comes from the acclaimed 2001 cult novel by Neil Gaiman, which charted Shadow’s unlikely path from repentant small-time criminal to major player in a metaphysical war. The series hews closely to the inventive (and often very funny) source material, teasing out a compelling mystery with Whittle’s heartbroken ex-con at its core. But American Gods co-creators Brian Fuller and Michael Green also took care to expand on the book’s world in surprising, inventive ways, adding some new characters (Corbin Bernsen’s fiery god Vulcan) and greatly enhancing the roles of others. Even viewers who know the story chapter and verse will find themselves occasionally amazed at how it all plays out on screen.
Arriving on the heels of FX’s Legion and just a few weeks prior to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks relaunch for Showtime, American Gods is the perfect bridge between what’s sure to be the twin poles of this year’s hallucinogenic-TV high points. It begins its essential-viewing eight-episode run on April 30th; here’s everything you need to know before tuning in.
It couldn’t come with a more impressive pedigree
Gaiman, the iconic comic-book writer (Sandman), fantasy novelist (Coraline) and all-around prolific dreamer might as well be a god in his own right when it comes to the geek demographic. Wisely, Fuller and Green sought his blessing when adapting one of his most vaunted tales. But each of the showrunners brings serious creative cred to the series, too: Fuller is the mastermind behind weird-TV totems Hannibal and Pushing Daisies, while Green co-wrote the screenplays for Logan, as well as the upcoming Alien: Covenant and Blade Runner 2049.
The premiere opens with a prologue that’s essentially Monty Python meets Game of Thrones
Brace yourself for the first episode’s tone-setting overture – a six-minute primer on how one of the oldest of the old gods found his way to the new world, and that serves a remarkably violent, over-the-top introduction to the series. After landing on American shores, a Viking horde is promptly greeted by hostile locals and a barren landscape. In order to escape from the cruel, unfriendly land and sail the seas again, they decide they must appease the All-Father by spilling copious amounts of their own blood – we’re talking “Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days“ here. Fast forward about 1,000 years, and death is still hovering at the margins of American life.
We then meet our hero Shadow, who’s pumping iron in a prison yard and confiding to a fellow inmate that he can’t shake a foreboding sense of doom. “It’s like a storm is coming,” he says, echoing the book’s tagline. The next morning he learns that his wife Laura (Emily Browning) and his best friend Robbie have died in a fatal car accident. Shadow’s prison pal, by the way, happens to be Jonathan Tucker’s Low Key Lyesmith – say that name out loud and see if it calls to mind any slippery Avengers villains rooted in Norse mythology.
Ian McShane is a force of nature
Famed for his role as saloon owner Al Swearengen on HBO’s poetically foul-mouthed Western Deadwood, the charismatic British actor has made a career out of playing rogues and ruffians with depth and wicked glee. He brings the same unbridled zeal to the curious Mr. Wednesday. The dapper gent first encounters a newly freed Shadow as he’s heading back to the small Midwestern town of Eagle Point, Indiana, to bury his wife, though the older man already seems to know the intimate details of Shadow’s private life. Wednesday explains he’s in need of a driver and some occasional muscle; he’s convinced the newly free ex-con is the right man for the job. But Shadow’s connection to this charming ne’er-do-well places him in almost immediate danger. He’s soon brawling with that aforementioned folkloric rabble-rouser Mad Sweeney and gets threatened by the puckish Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), the preening, vaping personification of the Internet.
So the old gods are fighting for their survival?
Indeed. The show begins with the premise that immigrants from around the world brought with them to America the deities of their various cultures, all of whom thrived in the new environment as long as their descendants continued to worship them. But as those traditions began to fade, supplanted by modern society’s obsession with media and technology, the old gods gradually started to fall into obscurity, their powers slowly draining away. Wednesday is looking to rally those forgotten figures to restore them to greatness and to hold at bay the advances of upstarts like Technical Boy, who spouts lines like, “Language is a virus. Religion is an operating system.” (Score one for the old gods.)
Yes, American Gods is political – albeit in ways its makers didn’t originally plan
At its core, the show is an inherent celebration of the contributions of immigrants have made to the rich tapestry of this country – and as such, it has taken on a strange sort of relevance in the current political climate that Fuller and Green hadn’t necessarily anticipated. But they’ve said that they did intentionally set out to make a statement with the show’s diverse cast and by amplifying the “feminine energy” in the narrative. In practical terms, that meant giving more screen time not only to Laura Moon (the entire fourth episode is devoted to her misadventures) but also to female gods including Kristin Chenowith as Easter and newcomer Yetide Badaki as the unforgettable Bilquis, whose fertility ritual provides one of the premiere’s most incredible moments. Simply divine.