Those five shows have all received a fair amount of critical praise, and they've helped Starz earn a lot of new subscribers as well. Last year, Starz managed to leapfrog Showtime and become the second-most popular premium cable channel.
But if it wants to break into HBO territory in terms of viewership, what the network needs is something like Game of Thrones, a pop culture phenomenon that draws viewers in droves. Game of Thrones proved, like Lost and Twin Peaks before it, that there is a substantial appetite for serialized shows with a lot of narrative twists and supernatural elements. Starz is surely hoping that it has its own Game of Thrones-scale hit on its hands with the upcoming fantasy series American Gods.
What's happening with American Gods? What's it about? Who's in it? When will it premiere? Here are the answers to all those questions and everything else you need to know about American Gods.
15 It's Based on a Novel by Fantasy Writer Extraordinaire Neil Gaiman
Let's start with the basics (die-hard fans of the book can skip the next couple entries on this list and head directly down to #13): since TV execs are almost never willing to take a risk on an original idea, American Gods is based on an already-existing intellectual property. That would be American Gods the novel, which was published in 2001 and written by Neil Gaiman.
It's hard to think of a better choice for source material. Gaiman is widely considered one of the greatest fantasy writers of his generation, if not of all-time. His work has already been successfully translated to the screen with Coraline (which boasts an impressive 80% score on Metacritic) and Stardust (which features Robert De Niro as a cross-dressing sky pirate, arguably his best performance in the past 10 years).
Outside of his books that have become movies, Gaimen is also known for his comic book series The Sandman and his novels Neverwhere, Anansi Boys, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane (published in 2013, the movie for this last one is already in the works). Many consider American Gods to be Gaiman's best novel. It won a Hugo, a Nebula, and a slew of other awards.
14 All The Gods Are Real
Well, these gods do exist, but with a catch: they only continue to live if people keep believing in them. The more people who believe in them, the more powerful they are. These are not gods in the "giant man with long white beard and flowing robes watching over us" sense. They look like normal people and live among us, and they range from ancient Egyptian deities like Thoth and Anubis to more abstract, modern gods like Media and Technology.
Shadow Moon is the protagonist of American Gods. At the start of the story, he's released from prison a few days early to attend the funeral of his wife, who just died in a car crash. In a plane and on his way to the funeral, he finds himself sitting next to a man who introduces himself as Mr. Wednesday. Shadow takes a job as Wednesday's bodyguard, and he soon learns that Wednesday is actually the god Odin from Norse mythology. Wednesday and Shadow set out on a road trip to visit the weakening Old Gods and try to convince them to fight against the New Gods.
13 Bryan Fuller and Michael Green Are The Showrunners
Fans of the novel hoping not to be disappointed by the TV adaptation will be happy to know that the series is in good hands. Specifically, it's in the hands of Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, who will serve as co-showrunners.
Fuller is known for creating bold and exceptional content. He's the man behind Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me, and Hannibal. With American Gods being based on such an out-there concept, it's encouraging that the show will be led by someone who has proven he can take a weird premise and turn it into entertaining TV. Fuller will also be heading the new Star Trek reboot for CBS All Access.
Green's resume is less eccentric, but he is especially experienced with fantasy TV shows. He was as a producer and writer for both Smallville and Heroes, and he helped write the screenplays for the upcoming Alien and Blade Runner sequels. Green has an existing working relationship with Odin himself, Ian McShane, who starred in Green's series Kings. More on him later.
12 Starz is Trusting the Lead Role to a Relative Unknown...
Yes, sci-fi fans will likely recognize Ricky Whittle from The 100, but he's definitely not someone most people know. American Gods has a $60 million budget and the potential to be a huge hit. Starz is taking a bit of gamble here by not going with someone who has more star power for the lead role of Shadow Moon.
Regardless of how well-known Whittle is, the network was wise to cast an actor who actually fits the character's “coffee and cream” skin color. A whitewashing controversy isn't good for anyone. Just ask British actor Joseph (little brother of Ralph) Fiennes how being cast as Michael Jackson is working out for him...
Gaiman has expressed effusive praise for Whittle's audition, and Whittle has shown dedication to this role by putting on an extra 30 pounds of muscle to look more like Shadow is described in the book, so there's little reason for fans to worry about his performance.
11 ...But the Rest of the Cast is Full of Familiar Faces
The second-biggest role of the series, Mr. Wednesday, was given to Ian McShane, who is well-known for his role as the foul-mouthed pimp Al Swearengen in HBO's Deadwood. McShane is no stranger to the fantasy genre, as he has had major roles in Pirate of the Caribbean and Show White and the Huntsman, and he turned in a memorable guest appearance as reformed killer Brother Ray in the latest season of Game of Thrones. This marks McShane's second time acting in something inspired by Gaiman's work - he was the voice of Mr. Sergei Alexander Bobinsky in Coraline.
The rest of the cast is populated by many other recognizable actors, including Hannibal alum Gillian Anderson (who will play Media, the goddess of television), Kristen Chenoweth (Easter, the old goddess of the dawn) and Crispin Glover (Mr. World, who leads a group of special agents that work for the New Gods). The Wire and Orange Is The New Black's Pablo Schrieber, Coen brothers favorite Peter Stormare, and comedian Dane Cook are also in the cast.
10 David Slade Will Direct the First Episode
David Slade is the director of the first episode of the show. His credits include Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night, Twilight: Eclipse, and a Breaking Bad episode (Season 4, Episode 3, aka the one where Marie steals items from open houses as a way to cope with Hank's mineral obsession and abrasive post-being shot personality).
Don't be too alarmed by his association with the Twilight franchise. It's not like the direction was the biggest problem there, and even great directors have made some stinkers over the years... Martin Scorsese directed Boxcar Barbera and David Lynch directed Dune (there's another property that could make an excellent series on premium cable). Of course, Slade is no Scorsese - but he's no Uwe Boll, either.
Slade was likely able to land this gig because of his established relationship with Fuller. The two worked together on Hannibal since its inception, with Slade serving as executive producer for the series and directing a handful of episodes. In fact, Slade directed the first episode of Hannibal, too.
9 American Gods was Originally Going to be a HBO Production
In 2011, just before Game of Thrones premiered, HBO started to develop American Gods as a series. It was being produced by Playtone, which was founded by Tom Hanks and is the same company that's making Gaiman's latest solo novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane into a movie.
But things just didn't work out with HBO/Playtone. After 3 years of fruitless development, the network finally passed on the project.
"We couldn't craft the script as good as we needed it to be," said Michael Lombardo, who was HBO's president of programming at the time. "I think we knew going in that it would be a challenge; every good book is a challenge to adapt it and find the level you need for it... We tried three different writers, we put a lot of effort into it. Some things just don't happen. We have to trust at the end of the day, if you don't have a star with a great script, you're just not going to go through with it."
You have to admire HBO for letting go of the project when it didn't feel right rather than keeping the rights whether the content was good or not. Good on them.
8 Some Episodes Will Be Written By Neil Gaiman Himself
Another encouraging sign for fans of the book is that Gaiman has been heavily involved in the making of the show. He'll be writing the scripts for one or more of the first season's episodes (how many, exactly, remains to be seen). At the moment, it looks like the rest of the episodes will be penned by Fuller and Green.
As a screenwriter, Gaiman has done a few short films, and he co-wrote the script for Beowulf (2007) with Roger Avery. For the small screen, Gaiman's screenwriting credits include the miniseries adaptation of his novel Neverwhere, an episodes of Babylon 5, and a few episodes for Doctor Who.
Even when he's not directly responsible for a given episode's final script, Gaiman still has a huge impact on what will appear on the show. During the filming of the first episode, Gaiman was on set and made a comment to Fuller about how, in one scene, Shadow did something out of character. Fuller reportedly went back and changed the scene to correct this error without any hesitation.
7 Elements Will Be Included from American Gods Companion Piece Anansi Boys
Though it was released 4 years after American Gods, Anansi Boys isn't really a sequel. It was actually conceived a few years before American Gods. The two books just share a character (Mr. Nancy/Anansi) and a universe. Or maybe they don't share a universe. It's a little confusing.... here's what Gaiman has to say on the universe-sharing: "I imagine it's set in the same world as American Gods. But then, several careful readers have pointed out that American Gods is set in the same world as Stardust, and the two stories don't taste anything like the same."
Fuller has confirmed that they have permission to use material from Anansi Boys to flesh out the story and setting of American Gods.
If you love Anansi Boys so much that it only being a small part of American Gods isn't enough for you, you should know that BBC is currently developing an entire series based on the 2005 novel.
6 Season 1 Will Be About Shadow and Wednesday's Road Trip Across America
A huge part of the book is focused on Shadow and Wednesday's road trip across America, as they travel from place to place recruiting Old Gods to fight the New Gods. For various reasons, many of these Old Gods are reluctant to join the fight. This section of the book really puts the America in American Gods and will give the showrunners a chance to look at bigger themes relating to the country today.
Apparently, pretty much all of the first season of American Gods is about this part of the story (this is why the marketing materials for the show prominently feature a fast car and a highway). So if American Gods gets renewed for a second season, there's still plenty of material from the original source left to cover.
On that note, it seems inevitable that there will be a second season of American Gods, given the budget and talent involved (though Vinyl proved that a big budget and an all-star lineup of creators doesn't necessarily guarantee a second season).
5 The House on the Rock Scenes Were Actually Filmed at The House on the Rock
During this road trip, Shadow encounters many strange places and colorful characters.
The strangest of these places may very well be The House on the Rock, which is a tourist attraction in Wisconsin that features all sorts of architectural oddities and creepy knick-knacks. It's easy to see why a fantasy writer like Gaiman would take a liking to a place like The House on the Rock.
The origin story alone is amazing: sometime in the 1920's, aspiring architect Alex Jordan, Jr. traveled to show plans he had designed for a building to his idol, Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright looked over the plans and was far from impressed, commenting that he "wouldn't hire [Jordan] to design a chicken coop". Humiliated and furious, on his way back home Jordan saw a large rock jutting out of the woods and decided to make his weird little building there to spite Wright. Over time, Jordan started charging admission and building expansions, such as rooms filled with automatic music machines and the world's largest indoor carousel.
Gaiman has confirmed that the show was able to film on location for the scenes set at The House on the Rock.
4 The Point of View Will Extend Beyond Shadow
In the book, Shadow is pretty much the only POV character.
In the show, however, many different points of view will be represented. We know that at least one episode will be from the perspective of Laura Moon, Shadow's wife. It seems that multiple episodes may use the structure of following around one character, rather than jumping around to check in on each part of the plot in every episode.
In addition to new perspectives, entire new stories of American Gods characters that weren't in the book may make it to the series. For example, Gaiman has created a detailed 4,000 year history for the leprechaun character Mad Sweeney, much of which isn't touched on in the book but may be covered in the show. Also, in the first draft of American Gods there was an entire subplot set in a Japanese internment camp, which was cut well before publication. This story be revisited in the show - though, if it eventually is, it probably wouldn't be until a later season.
3 Fuller Doesn't Want the Show to Be a Sausage Party
Of Bryan Fuller's four previous TV series, two had female leads-- Wonderfalls and Dead Like Me. On his most recent show, Hannibal, which was adapted from the famous Thomas Harris novels, Fuller changed three male characters from the novels into female characters, wanting to give women a more prominent place in the series. As the showrunner for the newest Star Trek series, Star Trek Discovery, Fuller has vowed that the show's lead will be a woman.
Fuller's dedication to bringing more women to the television landscape doesn't stop there. “In the novel, it is very much a sausage party," Fuller said at TCA 2016. "It’s about two guys on a road trip. We had such fantastic female characters in the piece that we wanted to expand those and let the narrative accordion out and include those. Bilquis is in one scene [in the book]. She’s a fully fleshed out character [in the show] with an arc that’s just as exciting as any other character."
2 The Eaten-by-Vagina Scene From the Book Will Be in the Show
While we're on the subject of Bilquis and that scene Fuller is referring to (Bilquis actually appears in two scenes, not one, but that's beside the point), it seems necessary to point out that this one scene is one of the most memorable sequences in the whole book.
Bilquis is the Queen of Sheba, a Biblical figure and a half-human, half-demon hybrid. She is working as a prostitute and one night, a movie producer solicits her services. Bilquis asks the man to worship her while they have sex. He does so, and when he finishes he looks down to see that he is being swallowed whole by Bilquis's vagina.
Now, the beauty of novels is that you can use words to put images in people's heads that would be nearly impossible to depict on camera. Some scenes just don't translate well from the page to the screen. The eaten-by-vagina sequence would appear on the surface to be such a scene.
But Fuller has confirmed that this scene will indeed be in the show... so get ready, people. And good luck, VFX crew.
1 It’s Currently Scheduled to Premiere in 2017
American Gods was initially scheduled to premiere in Fall 2016, but the release date has since been pushed back to next year. Shooting began on March 1, 2016 in Toronto and will continue through September.
Pittsburgh was almost the primary filming location instead of Toronto, with American Gods staff even going as far as to scout and select several locations in Western Pennsylvania for shooting, but budget problems managed to stop Pittsburgh from fully committing to the project and American Gods moved on.
Will it stick to a 2017 release date? Probably. We'll see. Sprawling fantasy shows are notoriously tricky to script and shoot, often leading to delays. We've seen this recently with HBO's Westworld, which was originally supposed to debut in 2015 but was pushed back to October of this year due to production problems.
Whenever American Gods does premiere, it's definitely worth a watch. This just might be the next big thing.