Even if you don’t care about the deeper themes that saturate the narrative of Starz’s American Gods, find them too profound and like your television only entertaining, you are bound to love the sumptuous, stunning, and at times weird feast of visuals put on the table by creators Bryan Fuller and Michael Green. Then again, you might find them disturbing too. American Gods is not for everyone. Blood flows freely, innards slither out like serpents from disemboweled unfortunates, and a dead woman walks with her lifeless skin peeling off her body, her severed arm sewn crudely to her shoulder and flies buzzing around her. It is all very disturbing, and it is meant to be. But it is also fascinating because of top-notch cinematography. You hate it, but you cannot keep your eyes off it. Bryan Fuller, whose creations include another visually stunning show Hannibal, has the capability to make even gore beautiful.
Based on Neil Gaiman’s multiple award winning book with the same name, American Gods is not just style. There is some solid writing, acting and direction. First, let’s talk about the premise. While the show explores many themes like belief and sacrifice, one theme that cuts through the narrative throughout is the war between the Old Gods and the New Gods: the eternal conflict between tradition and modernity. The Old Gods are simply the gods that have fallen out of favour but were once worshipped by millions, worshipped and sacrificed to — Odin, Easter, Anubis, and so on. The New Gods? Well, they are the usual suspects: technology, media, and globalisation — personified as Technical Boy and Media — who rule the United States. The Old Gods and the New Gods have chosen the United States of American as their turf for their upcoming war.
Shadow Moon, a convict, is slated to be released soon. However, his wife dies in an accident and he gets out earlier. He meets a man who calls himself Mr. Wednesdayin the flight back home. Wednesday offers him a job, Shadow agrees — although reluctantly. From that moment, Shadow’s world turns upside down. Most of what happens afterwards is beyond the grasp of his — and our — mind. Shadow is our eyes. We empathise with the confusion on his face, and actor Ricky Whittle has done a good job in bringing out the perplexity of the character. He has a perpetual question mark on his visage before the events unfolding before him — squinting eyes and slightly parted mouth — only to erupt into sudden but rare outbursts which are airily brushed away by Wednesday. The acting is in fact superb all around. Gillian Anderson as Media, Orlando Jones as Mr. Nancy (a play on his real name Anansi), and Pablo Schreiber as a foul-mouthed leprechaun are delightful.
The star of the show, however, is undoubtedly Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday. Even with his limited physical presence compared to Ricky Whittle’s beefy Shadow, McShane manages to project infinitely more charisma. A powerful god in the olden days, he now works as a conman and a recruiter to fight the New Gods in his upcoming war. He combines his charm and wiles to convince Old Gods across the country. Only once do we see the evidence of his immense power and that is only when he gets a man to believe in him. This is the crux of the world of American Gods: that gods are relevant — and indeed exist — because people believe in them. Else, they are less than human, pining for worshippers and lost in the chaos of modern world.
As already mentioned, American Gods is not for everyone. Not every viewer would be able to sit through all the blood and gore and entrails, however prettily it is presented, fewer still can stomach (pardon the pun!) some of the sequences involving the goddess Bilquis. But for the discerning viewer, American Gods offers some of the most dazzling and rewarding television you have seen. This is as much a piece of art as it is entertainment.