It’s a shame the second season of True Detective snagged Leonard Cohen’s “Nevermind” for its opening credits, because the song—menacing, omnipotent, maddeningly vague, and delivered in a husky, bourbon-soaked basso profundo—is downright perfect for the new Starz show American Gods. Adapted by Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (Kings) from the 2001 novel by Neil Gaiman, the eight-episode show fantasia of ancient mythology and Americana is gorgeously conceived, vastly imaginative, and ludicrously over the top. It also unfortunately falls sway to the worst, most self-indulgent excesses of prestige television, namely terrible pacing, prodigal violence, and a thuddingly unsubtle score that often feels better suited to a high-budget porn film.
American Gods, which premieres Sunday, has a fiendish task when it comes to translating Gaiman’s 517-page novel to the screen—and in the first three episodes (four were made available to critics) the seams are showing. The fourth, though, which focuses on a single character, offers some sense of what the show could be once it’s done with worldbuilding: a moody, noirish, eminently stylish drama. But to get there, you have to make it through three hours of introduction to a setup that nevertheless remains mostly opaque. The consequence of the show taking its time in revealing exactly what’s happening is that the best parts of Gaiman’s book—which offers a crucial allegory about heritage, belief, and meaning in modern life—haven’t yet been fully mined. But if nothing else, American Gods is a uniquely sensual drama, alert to every sound, texture, and tiny detail in a boundless universe.