Not many television series can claim to be about two very large concepts, and fewer still boast a title that totally lays bare the intentions of its explorations. But American Gods, Bryan Fuller's visually stunning new series on Starz, manages to deliver an impressive premiere that first establishes the symbolism of the road trip undertaken by Ian McShane's mysterious Mr. Wednesday and Ricky Whittle's Shadow Moon as both an expedition to literally find the old gods hiding out in the margins of Middle America and also to embark less explicitly on an exploration of America itself, to find the county by traveling its highways and side roads. Given the bifurcated state of things in this country, there's no better time for the series to have hit the (premium cable) airwaves, and no better creative mind than Fuller to help bring it into existence.
Fuller's vision of Neil Gaiman's 2001 novel of the same name builds off of the visual storytelling language he explored over three seasons on NBC's Hannibal. Much of that has to do with his bringing director David Slade along to help establish the look and feel of this metaphorical new series, and while much of what's seen with American Gods is in keeping with what the two delivered on network television, there's also an expansion of the formula, one that leans to an even greater degree on dreamlike logic and structure. The result, then, is a an often surreal appraisal of beliefs, mores, and attitudes that have fallen out of fashion and the new customs and rituals that have risen to replace them. Of course, all of this unfolds in the midst of an epic road trip surveying a chunk of the country that has been mostly resigned to living down the label of "flyover".
The first four episodes delivered to critics spend plenty of time with Orlando Jones's Mr. Nancy (otherwise known as Anansi), Pablo Schreiber's leprechaun Mad Sweeney, Anubis (Chris Obi), the Egyptian god of death, and the goddess of love Bliquis (Yetide Badaki), all of whom have fallen on hard times as their disciples have dwindled, moving on from the old gods to the seductive glimmer of media, technology and more. Although American Gods takes its time introducing the gods (both old and new), and explaining the ways in which they found themselves brought over to the country by the people who worship(ed) them, the crux of the narrative is taken up by Whittle and McShane, and the mystery of what it is exactly that Mr. Wednesday seeks and why he's chosen a grieving ex-con to be his associate on this expansive journey that's as much about an encroaching war between the gods as it is about the search for culture and identity.
American Gods assigns small-time thief and con man Shadow Moon as the audience's proxy, but a knack for sleight of hand and love of coin tricks aligns him more closely with the gods he's soon to encounter than anyone might expect. Early on, Fuller and series co-creator Michael Green move to establish the world of the gods as one in which deities resort to deception as a means of gaining (or regaining) their influence, one measly mortal at a time. McShane, who is Al Swearengen-level good here, appeals to Shadow's inner grifter, especially as the ex-convict's release from prison is marred by the death of his wife Laura (Emily Browning) and the revelation that she'd been up to no good while he was behind bars. But the promise of unconventional employment with the mysterious Mr. Wednesday acting as Shadow's benefactor assuages his grief to a certain degree – as does, no doubt, the revelation of Laura's unfaithfulness told to him by the terrific Betty Gilpin as Audrey, whose performance not only leavens the series but also supplies the necessary incredulity denied Shadow by virtue of his role in the battle ahead – and opens the proverbial floodgates for the sort of stylish spectacle the series is destined to become.
Stylishly unconventional is the name of the game, as Fuller, Green, and Slade – especially in the premiere – aim to introduce as many of the series' somewhat intangible concepts as possible without necessarily adhering to a rigid sense of logic or formal structure. It is, in a sense, how American Gods most resembles the narrative language of Hannibal, as the series sparingly employs establishing shots, making the arrival and departure of various characters enticingly elusive and lending a familiar dreamlike quality to the goings-on. In the premiere, Shadow moves from place to place with little explanation as to how he got there or why, and at one point enters Jack's Crocodile Bar without so much as a hint of its narrative importance, until a brawl with Mad Sweeney sends him deeper down the rabbit hole, further loosening the series' grip on realism.
The heightened storytelling and strangeness of the premiere runs the risk of alienating those not as inclined to immerse themselves so fully in the visuals of the series as, say, the show's creators are. There are times when devotion to a particular level of craftsmanship supplants the importance of the story's particulars or its characters. But at the same time, if ever there was a show demanding sumptuous visuals and elaborate set pieces to underline the enormity of what's about to unfold, it's American Gods. That doesn't make the bewildering final moments of the premiere, in which Shadow Moon meets Technical Boy (a new god given a slick makeover from his greasy, basement-dwelling counterpart in the novel) any less perplexing in its delivery but it does set the stage for what's to come – both in terms of series' overarching story and how that story will be conveyed on screen. And as such, the stage is set for American Gods to deliver a big, bold, and beautiful new series.
American Gods continues next Sunday with 'The Secret of Spoons' @9pm on Starz.