69° Good Afternoon
69° Good Afternoon

‘American Gods’ review: Neil Gaiman’s spirit comes to life

Ricky Whittle plays Shadow Moon in Starz'

Ricky Whittle plays Shadow Moon in Starz' "American Gods." Photo Credit: Starz Entertainment

THE SERIES “American Gods”

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on Starz


WHAT IT’S ABOUT Shadow (Ricky Whittle) has been released from prison after three years only to learn that his wife, Laura (Emily Browning), was killed in a car accident. Bereaved, he meets the mysterious Wednesday (Ian McShane) on the way home from the funeral. Wednesday wants to hire him, but to do what? When Shadow gets home, a shocker: Laura had been having an affair with his pal, Robbie (Dane Cook) — also killed in the accident. Robbie’s wife, Audrey (Betty Gilpin) wants revenge, but on whom?

This much-anticipated, eight-episode series is based on Neil Gaiman’s 2001 cult classic about Old World gods who have taken up residence in America — and who are about to do battle with America’s new gods, representing TV, communications, and so on. (The first four episodes were made available for review.)

MY SAYSeriously? Someone has made “American Gods” into a TV series? How is that even possible? Here’s how: Hire Michael Green (“Heroes”) and Bryan Fuller (“Hannibal”) as showrunners. Here’s another way: Get Ian McShane to play Wednesday, as perfect a match of actor to character as the Fuller/Green team is to the source novel.

Finally, do the book. Just damn the torpedoes and do it. The risk/reward ratio favors those who honor Gaiman’s psilocybin-inflected fever dream over those who want to do just another TV series that actually makes rational sense. Fans of the book will be pleased with this. Viewers who haven’t read the book will be lost at sea without a paddle. But have hope — some of those will come around in time. Green and Fuller have done a particularly fine job.

That doesn’t mean liberties haven’t been taken, large and small. Many have been. For example, on the small end of the scale, Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) was fat in the book but he’s thin here, almost an elfin Justin Bieber — if Beebs were a homicidal maniacal new god. On the large liberties side, Laura fills out the fourth episode, where we learn her back story, and how she was complicit in Shadow’s incarceration. She was mostly dead in the book. She’s fully alive here, at least initially. Browning’s Laura is the most relatable, fully human character of the series so far. This liberty was well worth taking.

But enough with book comparisons. How’s the show? Baffling, beautiful, horrifying, and ghoulishly funny in parts. The sight of Dane Cook’s priapic Robbie floating in outer space will have some viewers in stitches. The first five minutes on Sunday are pure Fuller, which is to say you’ll laugh while shielding your eyes with one hand and reaching for the Maalox with the other. Like some of Gaiman’s gods, Fuller’s gods are indeed crazy.

Along with McShane, the casting is perfect. Crispin Glover as new god Mr. World, Peter Stormare as old-world god Czernobog, or Orlando Jones as another, Mr. Nancy. Watch, then wonder: Who else? An especially antic Pablo Schreiber as Mad Sweeney, the leprechaun, devours the screen. Betty Gilpin as the cuckolded wife of Robbie does the same.

Whittle’s Shadow is exactly right, too. Mysterious, sweet, loyal and gentle, he’s also somewhat deficient in the charisma department. But McShane’s Wednesday — sinister, acerbic, glib — has plenty for both of them.

The bad news? “Gods” can be a narrative roller coaster, inducing whiplash or vertigo. And while Green and Fuller have captured Gaiman’s dreamscape, his mind-blowing visionary worldview is just out of reach. Like readers, viewers will eventually need the latter to make sense of the former.

BOTTOM LINE The spirit of Gaiman’s classic has been captured, but not yet the vision.


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