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.
In the first episode, Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) is approaching the last week of his prison sentence for robbery, and looking forward to going home to his wife. But he can’t shake an ominous sense of trouble looming. (“The air feels constipated, like if it could just push out a storm it’d be okay,” is one of the script’s more memorable lines.) Two days before his release, the warden tells Shadow his wife (Emily Browning) has been killed in a car crash, and he’s freed early for her funeral. On the flight home, he encounters a charming trickster, Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), who hires the grieving Shadow as his assistant, and proceeds to introduce him to a variety of strange and threatening characters.
It’s not spoiling too much to reveal that Wednesday’s associates are gods: deities who used to be worshipped by fearful congregants, but who now languish, depressed and mostly forgotten, in an America that they don’t seem at home in. American Gods intersperses Shadow and Wednesday’s adventures with isolated scenes of gods doing their thing. There’s Anansi (Orlando Jones), a mischief-maker who provokes mortals into enacting chaos. Anubis (Chris Obi) is a conduit between earth and other realms. Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) is a leprechaun who plucks gold coins from the sky and traffics in bar fights for fun. And, most memorably, there’s Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), a goddess of love who consumes her sexual partners by making them worship her while she absorbs their entire bodies inside her vagina.
As that last example might signify, American Gods isn’t for the squeamish: There’s enough blood in the first five minutes alone to sink a Viking ship, and the first three episodes appear to reveal a concerted effort by Starz to break new ground when it comes to the portrayal of penises on television. Not even the most sacred American icons are safe. In one scene, a goddess (Gillian Anderson) appears to Shadow on a TV screen in the guise of Lucille Ball, explaining how the media has replaced church as the dominant influence in modern life. She flatters and cajoles him, then finally asks, “Ever wanted to see Lucy’s tits?”
In between the carnage and supernaturally gratuitous lovemaking, American Gods struggles to keep things moving. Its obsessive focus on minutiae—the strike of a match as it’s being lit, the path of a dandelion spore being blown in the wind—slows down the plot to the point where it feels interminable. (One scene, involving a game of checkers, somehow manages to continue through two separate episodes; the only thing more boring would be actually playing checkers for that long.) Some actors, notably McShane and Anderson, have the charisma to pull off their more manifestly absurd and drawn-out theatrics; a few others struggle to be convincing. As Wednesday says at one point, you can’t weave the stories that are necessary for belief unless you have a little personality.
But as Shadow, Whittle finds the right blend of stoicism and confusion to act as the audience avatar through so much strangeness. And American Gods is at its best when it portrays the calamitous interactions between gods and humans, including a groundbreaking and moving scene between a salesman and a New York taxi driver who isn’t quite what he seems. The fourth episode, too, shows the show’s emotional range and spareness with dialogue. When it isn’t trying to engulf viewers with extravagant setpieces and discombobulating plot shifts, American Gods demonstrates its potential as a meditation on the compatibility of ancient traditions and modern life. The new gods, it turns out, are just as petty, violent, and vengeful as the old ones.