American Gods isn’t short on ambition. Boldly projected as a multi-series odyssey before the first set of 8 episodes have even aired, it brings cinematic production values, mind-boggling storytelling and an expansive cast of characters to the screen with Game of Thrones-level confidence exuding from every bloodied pore.
Based on, but substantially expanding upon, Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel, it centres on the story of hulking ex-con Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle). Released a few days early from a three-year stretch when his wife Laura dies in car smash-flagrante with his best friend, Shadow’s world is further turned on its head when he agrees to work as bodyguard to smooth-talking hustler Mr Wednesday. Turns out the old charmer is in fact the ancient god Odin (as in Norse mythology). This nugget isn’t revealed in the first episode, by the way, but you’ll guess anyway as he’s played by the god-like Ian McShane.
Wednesday needs Shadow’s assistance to gather together his fellow old gods - whose vivid immigration tales American Gods tells in a series of startling prologues - to rally against the unruly legion of ‘new gods’ who have risen up on the toxic tide of human faith in sex, drugs, technology and all manner of other crazy modern stuff. Add in the prospect of Ash vs Evil Dead-levels of blood and gore along the way (this is a STARZ series, after all) and it sounds like a fun gig, right Shadow? Truth be told, the poor chap looks a bit unsure.
Visually, American Gods is going to astonish you. A perversely twisted eulogy to Americana, it mixes the breath-taking landscapes and iconic highways of a road movie with sudden, breath-taking detours into neon-frazzled fantasy realms straight from Neil Gaiman’s cerebral cortex. From a charging buffalo with flaming eyes to a haunted forest carpeted in skulls, to a deliriously operatic lynching sequence that combines Singing In The Rain, A Clockwork Orange and Dario Argento, the words “what the actual f--k” will never be far from your lips.
Ex-Hollyoaks star Ricky Whittle is soulfully tortured as Shadow, bringing the right measure of physical presence and taciturn brooding to the poor punch-drunk chap. He can fight too, as his brutal skirmish in Jack’s Crocodile Bar with insane leprechaun Mad Sweeney ably demonstrates. Whittle spends most of The Bone Orchard playing second fiddle to the great Ian McShane as Mr Wednesday. Every flicker of McShane’s performance, from smelling a dandelion to asking for (and getting) a glass of Jack Daniels from an air hostess mid take-off, totally personifies the oily, hypnotic charm of Wednesday from the novel. It’s a sublime piece of casting. But top acting honours in this first episode go to Yetide Badaki as Bilquis, the goddess of love who we encounter masquerading as a prostitute in her blood-red boudoir. Readers may well wonder how the series realises her show-stealing party piece of consuming human bodies in their entirety through her vagina. The answer? A lot of crazy chanting and some not entirely convincing CGI but Badaki’s mesmeric performance sells the demented Ken Russell-esque lunacy of this sequence so completely it got a well-deserved standing ovation at the preview screening we attended. Next week she does it again with bells on.
Captivating and disorientating in equal measure, showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green have absolutely nailed the surreal textures of Gaiman’s novel to deliver the year’s most startling series debut. Only Coraline can touch this for translating Gaiman’s vision to the screen. Despite only encroaching a few pages into the novel’s narrative, The Bone Orchard feels like an epic start. We’re spoiled for great US imports these days, but American Gods keeps the faith in grand style.
AMERICAN GODS EPISODE 1: “THE BONE ORCHARD” / DIRECTOR: DAVID SLADE / WRITERS: BRYAN FULLER, MICHAEL GREEN / STARRING: RICKY WHITTLE, IAN MCSHANE, YETIDE BADAKI / AIR DATE: APRIL 30TH (USA ON STARZ); MAY 1ST (UK ON AMAZON PRIME)