Viewers of the first episode of American Gods (Saturdays 9ET, STARZ) likely find themselves in the position of one of the two primaries: Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), the laconic ex-con who is first being introduced to the strange world of American Gods, or Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), the man who has been living in this surreal universe for a long time. There is plenty in the premiere episode to entice both sets of viewers, who will likely make the leap of faith necessary to return for the second episode and beyond.
I am firmly in the Wednesday camp. My first-edition copy of American Gods, the Hugo and Nebula winning novel by Neil Gaiman upon which the series is based, was read for the first time when the book was released in 2001, and most recently over the past few weeks in preparation for watching the show and writing this review. As such, my standards for any adaptation, much less a big-budget, well-hyped premium cable adaptation, were high. The premiere episode more than lived up to my expectations, as I have seldom seen an adaptation as true to the book as this one.
Every important scene from the opening chapters of the novel, from Shadow’s release from prison, to Wednesday’s introduction on the airplane, to Shadow’s fight with Mad Sweeney (Pablo Shrieber) is there, as is much of the dialogue from the original novel. Even the Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) scene, which had the potential to be disastrous in this medium, was done, and done well. Long-time Gaiman fans will likely be satisfied with the fidelity of the story to the original.
The casting, likewise, is masterful. McShane is compelling as Wednesday, and it is his charm and range that largely carries this episode. He is able to make the viewer believe in his con, even when said viewer knows the outcome. He is clearly having fun with the role, and his performance did more to sell me on the program than anything else that happened in the first episode.
Whittle seems born to play Shadow, and his laconic intelligence, moral compass, and gritty toughness form the perfect counterpoints to McShane’s Wednesday.
Even the minor characters are near dead ringers for the way I imagined them when reading the novel.
The show is far from just a nostalgia fest for long-time Gaiman-readers, however. There is plenty here that is new and interesting even to the most seasoned of Gaiman’s fans.
The episode is visually interesting, which is no surprise coming from something associated with Gaiman. Anyone who has seen even one of the pre-released teasers got a feel for the surreal atmosphere created by the show’s visual and audio aspects. But beyond the Dave McKean-esque credits and the cinematography of the dream sequences, there are a number of visual motifs which run throughout the episode that only those viewers already familiar with the source material will understand. For example, the imagery of gallows and hangings that run throughout the episode reflect as much on Wednesday’s true identity as the they do on the racial issues from America’s past that comprised a portion of the discussion about the show on social media during episodes airing Saturday night. One can only hope that writer/creators Bryan Fuller and Michael Green continue to utilize this type of dramatic irony to communicate with those familiar with the source material.
Additionally, there are a number of scenes that have been updated to fit the times. As Gaiman, who is an executive producer of the TV program, discussed during a release event for his book Norse Mythology at Town Hall back in February, many of the deviations from the show’s source material were necessitated by the long gap between the book’s publication in 2001 and the show’s release in 2017. The scene when Shadow is kidnapped by Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) is a perfect example. Technical Boy needs to convey a cutting-edge image of the newest technology available, and the descriptions of him found in the book would not work in today’s environment. The scene, however, retains the spirit of the original (Technical Boy 2.0, if you will), as do most of the updates that are not letter-perfect adaptations of the novel.
Most of the adaptations are either of this nature, or, as Gaiman discussed at the same event, were necessitated by the switch in medium from novel to television. There are, however, a small number of deviations from the original that felt wrong. Chief among these is the portrayal of Audrey (Betty Gilpin), Shadow’s ex-wife’s friend. The scene between Audrey and Shadow at the graveyard deviates wildly from the corresponding scene, which takes place at the funeral, and completely changes Audrey’s character. While, according to an article published by the A/V club (http://www.avclub.com/article/neil-gaiman-why-he-asked-american-gods-cut-blowjob-254491) Gaiman was able to intercede with the show runners to keep Shadow’s reaction to changed Audrey true to his original character, the change seems out of place with the spirit of the show, and is an unnecessary distraction during an important character-building scene for Shadow.
There are other minor deviations that bothered me, including the opening “Coming to America” sequence—and I wish there could have been some acknowledgement of Shadow’s desire to take a bath–but overall, the adaptation is as true to the book as one could hope. Let’s hope that future episodes continue that fidelity, unlike, for example, Game of Thrones, which started out true to the source material, but quickly deviated from it in many of the key storylines.
Viewers in the Shadow camp—those who are coming to the show for the time— are likely intrigued, but confused, which is exactly where they should be after the first episode. The decision not to reveal the major conflict in the series (who is Mr. Wednesday preparing to fight; who are the “we” of whom Technical Boy speaks) does create mystery and suspense, but I wonder if there is enough grounding to hold viewers who do not possess the background knowledge of those in the Wednesday camp. Hooking these viewers is essential if the show is to become, as many have already predicted, the next big thing on TV.
Still, I imagine that the quality of the acting described above will be enough to hold these viewers for a couple of more episodes, at least. The characters are intriguing, and these viewers will likely want to find out what happens to them.
Whittle’s portrayal of Shadow is tailored well for this purpose. As the show’s moral compass—ironic as he is an ex-con—he is the character in whom we are supposed to invest. He is believable enough, and charismatic enough to carry viewers through the delayed exposition as they, along with him, learn this new reality.
It is McShane, however, who is likely to carry the program, and through his dazzling performance is likely to be enough to make viewers forget what they don’t know until it is time for them to know it. By that time, they’ll be invested, drawn into his world, like Shadow, unable to leave.
The first episode of American Gods hints at the possibility of greatness. All of the elements are there, from spot-on-performances by the cast, to the spectacular visual effects and cinematography, to the perfect source material. Will the show deliver on the promise of the first episode? It’s impossible to prove for sure after just one episode, but it’s something in which viewers can surely believe.
Ari Rubin lurks in the shadows. You may have thought you saw him in the back of the bar, or going into the subway station, but when you looked back, he was gone. His fiction has appeared in Pif Magazine, Scrivener’s Pen, and The Hopper Review. His short story “White Collar Blues,” which originally appeared in Skyline, was nominated for The Carve Magazine/Mild Horse Press Online Short Story Anthology Award by the editor. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter as @thesurrealari .