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‘American Gods’ Found the Right People at the Right Time

Neil Gaiman’s novel, long considered unfilmable, is finally on TV. That’s thanks to the medium’s unquenchable thirst for proven intellectual property — and the guiding hand of showrunner Bryan Fuller, who specializes in offbeat adaptations. Can TV’s biggest fan of blood splatter create the next ‘Game of Thrones’?

(Starz)
(Starz)

Ian McShane as a silver-tongued Norse god, humming four-letter words in a whiskey-aged baritone premium cable fans know all too well. Gillian Anderson as the personification of Media (think Lucille Ball), speaking from a wall of TVs in a Walmart. Pablo Schreiber as a 6-foot-tall leprechaun fallen on hard times. These are recognizable faces playing established characters — the most established characters, given that some of them are a few thousand years old. The scenarios we find them in, though — getting in bar fights, driving a cab — are, at least for divine entities, brand new.

The Starz series American Gods is a blender of mythologies rendered into a collage of genres, settings, and reference points, from Deadwood to Norse lore. It’s the perfect source text for a cultural moment with an insatiable appetite for antecedents and adaptations: the live-action Disney onslaught continues, and more Stephen King revivals seem to spring up by the day. The convenient twist: Unlike your average reboot or sequel, American Gods is explicitly about the idea that there’s not much new under the sun, and that history loves to repeat itself as both tragedy and farce.

Neil Gaiman’s 2001 fantasy novel, in which deities old (leprechauns, ifrits) and new (media, technology) jockey for this country’s capricious hearts and minds, bears a striking resemblance to a certain cultural juggernaut. The similarities are so strong, in fact, that the book’s reincarnation as a Starz series seems in hindsight like a matter of when, not if. Like A Song of Ice and Fire, American Gods is a work of fiction deliberately written to be nigh-unadaptable by an author frustrated with the limitations of filmed entertainment. What were once insurmountable hurdles (narrative sprawl, violence, sex) now make the book a perfect candidate for 2010s premium television. And the gamble of an expensive, world-building-heavy new genre series is mitigated somewhat by a devoted, built-in fan base. “Madness lies in trying to anticipate what fans want when you’re not a fan,” Bryan Fuller, the veteran showrunner who cocreated the show with collaborator Michael Green, tells me. “[But] since Michael and I are fans, all we really had to do was anticipate what we wanted and hope that people felt the same way.”

American Gods is the latest domino in a chain of genre-to-series adaptations, including The Magicians, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Expanse, and on American Gods own network, Outlander. The phenomenon is a smaller offshoot of Hollywood’s larger appetite for pre-existing IP, but more creatively fruitful than major movie studios’ endless hunt for a new franchise. The emphasis on intellectual property is “kind of an unfortunate state of the business, but it’s also a fascinating one,” says Fuller. “You look at what is happening with literary adaptations on television and you understand that there is greater real estate to tell those stories more effectively than you would in a film.” But creating the next Game of Thrones means taking on a Thrones-level logistical challenge on top of the standard creative challenge of simply making a good television show. American Gods is a striking metaphor for America’s roiling, polyglot subconscious. To do it justice, its adaptation would have to be equally resonant, boundary-pushing, and original — a seemingly paradoxical demand of an adaptation.

Enter Fuller and Green, Starz’s hopeful answer to Benioff and Weiss. Their lurid, strange, compelling new series, which strides headlong into the Sunday-night TV war zone this weekend, is as seductive and indelible as their inspiration. With both the end of Game of Thrones in sight and themes like immigration now at the forefront of our national consciousness, they couldn’t have done it at a better time. It’s a potential coup, though if you look at either man’s résumé, it’s hardly a surprise.

“After working on Hannibal for four or five years, I really wanted to write one of my original ideas,” Fuller says. “[But I] knew, instinctively, that I would probably have an easier time adapting great material like American Gods than I would trying to launch something that was wholly original.” It’s a refreshingly candid admission from someone in a profession that prides itself on individual expression. Politics may be the art of the possible, but it has nothing on the entertainment business.

Hannibal, Fuller’s most recent series, was a paradox: an act of risk management that was nonetheless thrillingly risky. For three seasons, Fuller managed to serve up balletically staged gore and obliquely philosophical dialogue to a network TV audience. While Thomas Harris’s iconic characters would make sense in a Criminal Minds–style procedural — and in the beginning, Hannibal at least feinted in that direction — Fuller instead turned the show into a love story, with Hannibal Lecter and FBI profiler Will Graham turning the hunter-hunted relationship into something more like intimacy. Unsurprisingly, the ratings were as low as the acclaim was feverish. Hannibal ended its brief run in 2015 as the most visually ambitious and thematically interesting series on broadcast.

Of the four series Fuller had created up until that point — including Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me, and Pushing Daisies Hannibal was both the longest lasting and the first with enough name recognition to offset its high-concept premise. Pushing Daisies’ premise, wherein Lee Pace uses his powers of resurrection to solve murders and make pies out of dead fruit, isn’t any stranger or more macabre than Hannibal’s, where Mads Mikkelsen’s serial-killing aesthete turns his victims into gourmet meals financed by his booming psychotherapy practice. But thanks to Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Demme, the latter was an easier sell. NBC wouldn’t have to introduce the public to Hannibal Lecter or his unorthodox diet, because The Silence of the Lambs (and the Thomas Harris novels it’s based on) had already done it for them. “It’s a product of where the industry is right now in terms of intellectual properties,” Fuller says. “What they’re willing to spend most money on is something that has been proven in some capacity previously. Otherwise you get into a lot of internalized fear from studios and networks about original material needing certain familiar aspects to the storytelling in order for them to believe that they can confidently market this show.”

What makes adaptation a good fit for Fuller also makes Fuller a good fit for adaptation. Fuller began his career as a writer on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Voyager, then wrote NBC’s 2002 TV movie version of Carrie before moving on to his own shows. Fuller’s proven capacity for infusing potentially tired franchises with flair and excitement explains why he was initially chosen to lead CBS All Access’s upcoming Star Trek: Discovery. He’s subsequently stepped down as showrunner to concentrate on American Gods, though not before plotting out the season and writing its first two scripts. And his comfort with pre-existing material definitely explains why Neil Gaiman approached him directly when looking for someone to helm the latest effort to bring American Gods to series. The book had previously spent a few years in development at HBO, but after several attempts with three different writers, then-president Michael Lombardo eventually threw in the towel.

Fuller agreed, but with one condition: that he bring on a partner. He specifically had in mind Michael Green, a veteran TV and comics writer with whom he’d previously worked on Heroes. Green has no less than four writing credits on features in 2017, every one of which fits Fuller’s M.O. of working within an inherited universe: Logan, Blade Runner 2049, Alien: Covenant, and Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express. “We had been talking for a few years over lunches,” Fuller explains. “We kept talking about how much easier it would be if we were working together and had each other’s backs.” Green agrees: “A second gut to check when you’re trying to appraise something so strange is a good thing for both of us. And it’s such a large show that I don’t know any one showrunner who could do it, or one who should,” he says. “You’re gonna need four hands, four kidneys, two livers, two hearts.” For a goal no less imposing than channeling the deliberately unwieldy work of a widely adored author, that was the least they’d need. “We didn’t want to miss a thing that made [the book] exciting and special and memorable,” Green says. It’s hard to envision anyone better suited to that formidable task than a professional maker of cult favorites. It goes without saying that American Gods is after a following significantly larger than “cult.”

“At the time in which the book was written, the show was, perhaps accurately, described as unshootable,” Fuller recounts. “It went to such extreme lengths of visual daring and spiritual, philosophical storytelling that defies contextualization.” That’s by design. “I had written film scripts and was very tired of writing 120-page stories that were comprehensible to studio executives,” Gaiman told Vice News in a recent interview. “I wanted to write something big and weird … it seemed like this was something that could only be a novel.”

The result follows stoic cipher Shadow Moon into a whirlwind 24 hours. Shadow gets out of prison, learns his wife has died in a car accident, and enters the employ of a mysterious trickster named Mr. Wednesday, who conscripts him into a brewing war: between gods forgotten by those who brought them over from the old country versus gods born from modern America’s substitutes for spirituality. The ensuing battle allegorizes the country’s relentless search for itself, dramatizing the not-always-peaceful process of assimilation.

Where American Gods truly shines, and where Fuller’s involvement comes through strongest, is in its style. With a roster of directors that includes Hannibal stalwarts David Slade and Vincenzo Natali, the show translates the novel’s fusion of cheesy Americana and old-world religiosity by casting everything in a razor-sharp chiaroscuro. When we see the inside an Egyptian-themed casino, we’re momentarily confused about whether we’re in actual ancient Egypt or some cheap American facsimile of it. That’s the point. And then there’s the violence, which introduces itself via Crystal Light jets of watery crimson in the very first scene. Where Hannibal opted for bloodless, grotesquely beautiful tableaux, American Gods gushes and burns. “That desire to present that as beautifully and hypnotically as stylized as we can, those were our instincts as visual storytellers,” Fuller says.

That American Gods (the show) was wrung from “unadaptable” source material makes it all the more impressive. “The reality of the book is that the best parts make it structurally incompatible with a film or television adaptation,” Green observes. “If you are looking for a television show that will conform to traditional narrative notions of how you structure an episode, how many acts it should have, and how you need to break it into an A story, B story, C story — just usual fashion — it won’t do that and still be an adaptation of American Gods.

So American Gods (the show) preserves the structure of the book, in which the main story of Shadow and Wednesday’s road trip is interspersed with tangential short stories. (The aspect ratio serves as a helpful, playful indicator of where we stand, letterboxing to a wider shot whenever the show diverges from its main thread.) This is less jarring than it would have been in 2001, when American Gods was published and The Sopranos was just entering its third season; serialization and digression are now the norm on prestige television. The script also slows the cadence to a crawl, letting the story breathe and explore the book’s world. The first season is on track to cover just a quarter to a third of the book, and Fuller and Green are in no rush to hit the gas; a deliberate pace, too, is now a hallmark of contemporary television.

“There were things that we intended to get to about halfway through Season 1 that we don’t get to until Season 2,” Fuller says — pending pickup, of course. “That all comes from stopping and listening to the show when it offers a suggestion of what it wants to be when it grows up.” In the time it took American Gods to become TV, TV has become more like American Gods.

Fuller and Green have long had the skill sets that make them well-suited to adapting American Gods; until now they simply hadn’t gotten the chance to apply them. In 2017, the industry climate is now more receptive on both the financial and consumer sides to niche-seeming moon shots than ever before.

“When you tell the people who want a show of American Gods, we’re going to deliver you a show that, by virtue of being an adaptation of this book, is going to resist narrative conformity, they say thank you, and yes, and sure,” Green enthuses. Networks and studios are more open to investing in long-shot chances to break through Peak TV than ever — provided a show has that prized tether to a known quantity. “Michael and I come from a place where the material that we generate, whether it’s Kings or Pushing Daisies, are operating on a unique set of standards that are only applicable to those shows,” Fuller says. “That is terrifying to people who need to invest tens of millions of dollars in launching a show. It is much easier for them to open their checkbooks if a story has been proven in one way or another.”

The threshold for “proven” has also changed to include a far broader selection of stories. “When [American Gods] first came out,” Green recounts, “it lived in the sci-fi/fantasy genre aisle. But Neil’s writing, and it’s recognized now, surpasses that. He’s now a literary author, which is wonderful. Which is not to say there isn’t excellent literary-caliber fiction written in genre, but it always tends to be looked at in a different class.” Certain kinds of genre adaptations, in the form of superhero tentpoles, can now feel as oppressive as they were once marginalized. But the change in sensibility — the acceptance of “convention culture,” in all its forms — also opens up possibilities for works once considered anathema to a mass audience, and audiences that weren’t previously included in that catch-all phrase.

“What’s wonderful about the television landscape now is that the makers of series and the funders of series are finally starting to realize that sci-fi and fantasy and genre are not exclusively the interest of teenage boys,” Green continues. (“Teenage white boys,” Fuller interjects.) “Lo and behold, there’s a whole group of human beings called women who have always loved those genres, and genres in general.” He cites Buffy and Smallville as examples; HBO’s proudly pulpy — and sexy — True Blood also comes to mind.

American Gods is wide-ranging and inclusive, as befits its subject: disparate populations coming together in search of a common identity. (“This is the only country in the world that wonders what it is,” Wednesday observes.) Fans have praised Fuller and Green’s non-white casting of Shadow, biracial in the books. A gay sex scene isn’t just kept intact, but rendered in a gorgeous, explicit, and deeply romantic sequence that marks one of the show’s high points. A prologue sees Orlando Jones’s Anansi prompt a slave ship rebellion by simply describing the horrors of racism that await on America’s shores. As a result, the show feels uniquely contemporary. American Gods might have been made before 2017, but this version of American Gods — slyly political, visually engrossing, inventively faithful — couldn’t exist any time but right now.

The right people, the right place, the right time: American Gods represents the convergence of various factors into a show that nonetheless feels distinct from the trend piece Mad Libs surrounding it. Fuller’s trademark is paying tribute to a work of art by creating adaptations that don’t hesitate to surprise and unsettle. American Gods might represent the apotheosis of that method, finding novelty through obsessive fidelity. “Really, all Michael and I did was be fans of the book and want to preserve the spirit of the novel and the intent of the novel and deliver to the audience what we visualized in our minds when we were first reading it 16 years ago,” Fuller says. “There wasn’t any great, grand agenda beyond delivering the novel to the screen.”