To his fans, author Neil Gaiman could in fact be one of the titular beings of his 2001 award-winning novel, minus the American distinction, naturally. Bryan Fuller has carved out his own select fanbase thanks to the fanciful short-lived series that were “Wonderfalls” and “Pushing Daisies.” Fuller then pushed the boundaries of network television to its breaking point with the daring reinvention of Hannibal Lecter in “Hannibal.” The psychotic imagery and flowing blood that was a weekly staple of the brilliant show was one of the few challengers to the depths and heights that have moved so many viewers to cable and binge-watching streaming series. Three seasons of that was a miracle onto itself. Fuller now takes his talents to “American Gods,” with the Starz network to explore Gaiman’s examination of humans’ relationships to myths, reality and how often we can distort them. That was at least the impression of Gaiman’s filmed introduction to a ready-and-willing audience at SXSW eager for their first glimpse. Although it can often be unfair to judge a series by the pilot alone, this is a show that may rely solely on its fanbase to break through what at first glance appears to be the same ol’ mold.
After a muddled but bloody history lesson on the search for the New World and a horde’s appeasement to the Gods for a safe escape, we are introduced to Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), a convict who gets an early release when his beloved wife, Laura (Emily Browning), is killed in a car crash. On the flight home, he is fortunately bumped up to first class, where he is seated next to a man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday (Ian MacShane), whom he witnessed on his own way into luxury seating. Mr. W certainly seems to know a lot about Shadow — enough to even offer him a job, which he turns down.
Driving the rest of the way to his wife’s funeral, Shadow ends up in a bar for a quick bite and is approached by a tough guy identifying himself as a leprechaun. Despite possessing none of the wardrobe or size limitations of such a creature, the man to be known as Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) tries to further dissuade Shadow’s job offer when Wednesday shows up again. This leads to a bar fight and a finale that brings us full circle from self-mutilating Vikings to otherworldly faceless virtual-reality henchman led on by a toad’s head-vaping hipster also looking to thwart whatever Wednesday’s true intentions may be.
All of this will likely mean more to readers of Gaiman’s original text than viewers getting their first glimpse of something that looks like the love child of TV’s “Preacher” and the collective orgy of Starz’s other series programming (i.e. “Spartacus,” “Black Sails,” “Ash Vs. Evil Dead“). The pilot’s first act is a groggy mix of prologue and visuals distracting enough to keep you from wondering if we are really being hooked by the journey of its protagonist. Much of this setback can be attributed to Whittle, who seems caught somewhere in the vicinity of a morose Vin Diesel. Perhaps he is to be seen as much: just another average package of muscle that would be central casting for henchmen who get eliminated before getting their chance to go one-on-one with the actual hero.
The pilot picks up a noted head of steam with the arrival of MacShane, whose turn on the too-short-lived “Deadwood” anointed him immortal status the moment he set foot in any project since. There is a bit of Al Swearengen in Wednesday, a straight-talking con man who turns a phrase convincingly enough that anyone would be willing to follow him into hell on the belief that he may actually hold your hand the entire way. MacShane as well as Schreiber provide the episode with a dose of personality that is sorely lacking in Whittle’s extended presence.
There is a lot left wanting by the show’s first hour, a leisurely setup introducing a few key characters and just the hint of a conflict. The next three episodes (provided for press) promise more speechifying with Orlando Jones getting our attention (and a ship full of slaves) with an angry tale of the future where black lives most certainly do not matter in the eyes of the world for hundreds of years. The accompanying saxophone on the soundtrack may have one looking for Auntie Entity in Thunderdome off in the distance, while the superimposed spider in place of Jones’ head brings us back to the present and lessens the impact of the speech with further supernatural silliness.
“I think I’m losing my mind,” Shadows posits while Wednesday retorts along with the rest of us, “Well, when will you know for sure?” This is a thought that may weigh on viewers’ minds watching six minutes of Shadow packing up his hour and scrubbing it down or a repeat montage of Yetide Badaki’s Bilquis going through her “Under The Skin”-like seduction routine a few more times to remind us just how powerful her Kegel muscles really are (though the phrase “unforgettable Joel Murray sex scene” does have a nice ring to it). Establishing an entire universe or not, at some point the metaphor of Lucille Ball explaining the rocky transition from 35mm to HD needs to be applied to a show lacking in clarity early on.
Some interesting visuals begin to sneak into the fray while the story tries to further develop the international dynamic of characters coming to America in search of anything beyond the gaudy bastardization of ancient cultures for financial interests. This is where Bryan Fuller commands momentary attention, given how great “Hannibal” was at tapping into the basest instincts of man and woman. Emily Browning provides some much-needed personality into episode four, particularly when expressing her doubts about fate’s fairy tales. She even gets to engage in a blood-soaked takedown only hinted at in the pilot, but how many slow-motion shots of raindrops and shoveling can we take before even Zack Snyder says enough already? Whittle’s unfortunate lack of chemistry with Browning is a further detriment to forming any lasting emotional investment in its leads, though it couldn’t hurt to have a full episode of her and the jilted Betty Gilpin driving cross country.
Considering the way we view television nowadays, it is hardly fair to write off any show’s vision after a single episode — though the only reason that “American Gods” virgins may have to continue onto episode two is to hopefully see why all the hype exists in the first place. If a show’s pilot is the pitch to an audience to establish a plot, themes, tone or a sense of purpose, then director David Slade (“Hard Candy,” “30 Days Of Night,” “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse“) misfires except directly to Gaiman’s base. When Wednesday says, “You are pretending you cannot believe in impossible things,” he may have been speaking to me as much as to Shadow, except when you consider how well shows such as “Lost,” “Game Of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead” established both their purpose and community in minutes rather than hours, something clearly is being lost in translation here. Chess is the most painfully overused metaphor in cinema to represent the intricate strategy one opponent imposes over another, double that in a show dealing with gods and death. When a single episode bookends some interesting speeches around a whimpering repetition in its own establishment, a climactic game of checkers is an even more appropriate metaphor for “American Gods.” [C]