Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel “American Gods” has a fascinating premise: all that we believe in becomes real, and as we add to the pantheon of our self-created idols, the avatars of older beliefs fade into irrelevance … until they decide to declare war against the new kids.
But left out of Gaiman’s tale is the God of the Bible and His Son.
The temptation to mess with that proved too great for the new TV version of the story.
What’s “American Gods” about, anyway?
On Sunday, April 30, Starz premieres an eight-episode adaptation of “American Gods,” from Michael Green (“Kings,” “Heroes,” “Everwood”) and Bryan Fuller (“Hannibal,” “Pushing Daisies,” “Dead Like Me”).
Ricky Whittle (“The 100”) stars as Shadow Moon, a prison inmate about to get out of jail and be reunited with his wife (Emily Browning). Tragedy intervenes, and he’s released early.
He stumbles into the company of the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), who hires him as a driver and bodyguard. They embark on a phantasmagoric road trip across America, meeting embodiments of ancient beliefs and modern obsessions, such as Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), Mr. World (Crispin Glover), Media (Gillian Anderson), Easter (Kristin Chenoweth) and Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones).
Interspersed with this story are seemingly — after four episodes, anyway — random vignettes featuring new characters interacting with other avatars.
What do the critics think?
Much as with “The Handmaid’s Tale,” TV critics with politics on the brain are rushing to declare the series prescient and relevant and prophetic and whatnot, because of the notion that the old gods came over with immigrants to America. Well, yeah, but people taking old gods to new places has happened all over the world, throughout human history. But, sure, this is a time like no other, in the age of Trump … blah blah blah.
Is Jesus now one of the “American Gods”?
Jesus is indeed added in physical form into Green and Fuller’s take on Gaiman’s story. Now, there are a bunch of different Jesuses, of different ethnicities and races, and one of them is an illegal immigrant. I can’t tell you if it’s incredibly offensive or not, since Jesus is mentioned, but not yet seen, in the four episodes Starz has made available for review.
I’m pretty sure I’m not going to find out, either, because that’s four hours of my life I’m not going to get back, and I’m currently not in the mood to hand over any more precious time.
My other impressions of “American Gods” (and why I’m going to start rewatching “Deadwood”):
- It’s violent and wildly sexual, with an extravagance of CGI decapitations, dismemberings and bloodletting. But then, I watched “300” at the movies, and Starz’ “Spartacus,” so it’s nothing I haven’t seen. I looked away a lot, not because it affected me emotionally, it was just gross.
- In four episodes, the only instance of tenderness is in a gay encounter between strangers, one of which is a genie. Draw from that what you will. (UPDATE: Or, you can read the producers’ own explanation for this, all of which appears entirely intentional.)
- Shadow’s wife is a near-approximation, in tone and attitude, of the unhappy, ennui-filled main character from Fuller’s “Dead Like Me,” and the writer’s fixation on death, zombies, fallen-off body parts, etc., is on full display. If you watched all of “Dead Like Me” (as I did), this feels really, really familiar. If you watched “Dead Like Me” and “Pushing Daisies,” it’s positively deja vu.
- And, Shadow’s wife is a fallen-away Catholic who “read history books” and found out Jesus wasn’t real. Not sure what books she read, since no serious historian doubts the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, but it’s a quick, cheap line, so why not? After all, she equates belief in Him with Santa and the Tooth Fairy.
- By episode two, I was bored. CGI violence, sexual titillation, mocking the notion of faith — this is much of Hollywood’s stock in trade these days. It’s not risky or transgressive or daring. It’s just the usual. You want something really daring? Head to Hulu for Fox’s “The Exorcist,” or check out HBO’s “The Young Pope.” By taking faith seriously, those were pushing the envelope.
- I didn’t care about any of the characters. Not a one. If a bomb dropped from the sky and obliterated them all, it wouldn’t have bothered me. While adding in Jesus where He didn’t exist, Green and Fuller could have added a dog. I might have cared about the dog.
- Every time Ian McShane spoke, I missed “Deadwood.”
Among the biggest killers of good storytelling are self-indulgence, self-regard, wretched excess, an inability to get outside of one’s own fixations, and the conscious or unconscious need to bend stories to make a political point.
Starz’s “American Gods” could have been a satirical look at the self-inflicted and dangerous idolatry of our age, if only it could have gotten out of its own way.
Images: Courtesy Starz