The devilishly gorgeous American Gods (Amazon Prime) is an eight-part adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s much-loved 2001 novel, which tells the story of a modern world on the verge of a clash between deities old and new. Gaiman has said that, while many directors had called him about putting the story on screen, they told him it was “too long and too sprawling” to be a movie; but without the long and sprawling details, it wouldn’t be the same story. However, if there’s one thing television can offer that films cannot, it’s the space to be long and sprawling; with Gaiman on board as executive producer, the US network Starz has stepped up to the challenge, with Amazon picking it up for UK broadcast.
American Gods would certainly have been an incomprehensible movie. As a TV show, it just about gets away with it. It’s an enticing visual feast, but, at this early stage, it’s also confusing and opaque, and there’s very little effort being made to explain what is going on. Those who have read the novel may be better equipped to work out why a giant woman is pulling a man into her vagina, but for viewers who have not, it’s bewildering.
Ricky Whittle is Shadow Moon, whose release from prison is pulled forward by a couple of days when his wife is killed in a car accident. In an indication of the wry humour that may be to come, the prison guard tells him the situation is “good news, bad news” – his wife may be dead, but at least he’s out early. Shadow has a premonition that something is not right, with dreams and visions swirling around his mind of storms and skulls and trees with bloodied, grasping claws.
There is a parochial tendency for British viewers to get overexcited by the presence of a British TV actor in something so stylised and expensive-looking, as if a long-lost relative has suddenly turned up at your auntie’s house in a Rolls Royce and a tux. Even so, it takes a little while to absorb the fact that Whittle was formerly Calvin Valentine in Hollyoaks, and is now a very long way from Chester.
As he makes his way across the country for his wife’s funeral, Shadow meets Mr Wednesday, a wisecracking, whisky-drinking Mr Big played with droll delight by Ian McShane, who has carved out a neat line as TV’s resident quipping bastard. Wednesday recruits Shadow as his henchman following a drunken night in a bar that leads to an explosive brawl between Shadow and Mad Sweeney (The Wire’s Pablo Schreiber, who has a remarkable ability to look unlike any of the characters he has played before, despite them all sharing the same face). Sweeney describes himself as a leprechaun. At first I assumed he was mocking his Irishness, but as he can pluck gold coins from the air with an ease that would put David Blaine to shame, he must be a real one (whatever that will come to mean in this world).
From the opening scene, in which a group of men systematically slaughter one another on a beach to call forth the god of war, to a beating that Shadow takes from the faceless Clockwork Orange-esque goons of a vaping new god who seems to be a hybrid of Jedward and a professional YouTuber, this is a wildly violent show, with lashings of blood and severed limbs, and the cartoonish gore of a graphic novel. That’s to say nothing of that outrageous and gleefully provocative vagina-absorption moment, when a bumbling middle-aged man meets a woman in a hotel lobby for a date and then sex, and is forced to worship her loudly and profusely until she pulls him – whole – right up inside her. The colours are vivid and gaudy throughout, with a glaring intensity from bright blues and greens, as well as the ominous claret that washes through almost every scene. Co-showrunner Bryan Fuller – who created the excellent Hannibal – is one of TV’s true originals, so unique in his surreal and hyper-stylised visual approach that you can usually spot his involvement way before the credits roll.
For what is obviously such a grand and ambitious undertaking, though, there is something oddly familiar about American Gods. Perhaps it is simply one of those accidents of timing, but in recent months there have been a number of shows along roughly the same lines: violent, moody and handsome, so sure of their own good looks that they lack the inclination to explain anything about themselves. Fans of Legion and Preacher, in particular, will be happy to add another clever-clever supernatural show to their library, while fans of the book may be delighted that it has found its way to the screen at last. But it may take patience for those viewers who fall somewhere in between.