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How ‘American Gods’ Got Great

The Neil Gaiman adaptation was always visually stunning — but now it makes sense as TV

(Starz)
(Starz)

American Gods has the kind of ambition only sought-after IP can buy: kaleidoscopic visuals, cult-favorite actors, a mythology that spans thousands of years and multiple continents, and one alarmingly accurate David Bowie impression. The question that faced Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s sprawling 2001 novel was whether the show could channel that ambition into a manageable, compelling story. Heading into the final episode of its first season, which airs this Sunday on Starz, American Gods has introduced new and compelling characters, balanced flourish with TV convention, and — most importantly — proved it can work as a television show.

Initial reaction to the show was mixed: the story of a brewing war between “old” gods brought over by immigrants (Anansi, Anubis) and “new” ones generated by modern culture (Technology, Media), American Gods easily drew attention for its high-profile cast, cheerily bastardized iconography, and snazzy title sequence. Yet early episodes also faced criticism for pacing and clarity issues that felt like direct outgrowths of source material. Digesting all the book’s details and detours led to widespread confusion over even the most basic details of what is going on. That’s because there’s one all-important distinction between the reading experience and the viewing one: TV can’t be watched at the viewer’s own pace. After a gorgeous yet sluggish initial trio of episodes, I heard from and saw plenty of viewers who were understandably losing patience. Plotless flourishes like slow-motion dandelion petals and CGI sex scenes are stunning but frustrating, especially since they’re meted out week to week.

But American Gods hit a turning point in its fourth episode, a 57-minute solution to the shows most pressing problem: its boring protagonist. “Git Gone” — a spotlight on Laura Moon (Emily Browning), the deceased wife of hero Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) who’s come back from the grave — is the show’s first significant departure from its source material. The episode is also an injection of something American Gods desperately needed: a second protagonist to keep us invested and entertained through the chaos of the rest of the show.

That “Git Gone” is also American Gods best installment to date is not a coincidence. On the page, American Gods is a single, complex narrative. But television rewards ensembles; adding more fully realized human beings (or supernatural entities) lets characters share the load. The series can awe and befuddle us, with Shadow as our proxy. But the show needs a character like Laura, too: more active than passive, with clear goals that act as catalysts for plot development and characterization.

As conceived by Gaiman, Shadow is a stoic receptacle. Whittle’s Shadow has become a different kind of audience surrogate, mirroring our disbelief rather than relieving it. For the first three episodes, American Gods was Shadow’s show, and his one-note astonishment at his supernatural surroundings quickly wore thin; he’s still agape long after the audience is.

Pablo Schreiber as Mad Sweeney (Starz)
Pablo Schreiber as Mad Sweeney (Starz)

That all changed with “Git Gone”: an effective character study that quickly and efficiently gives Laura all the nuance and dimension that Shadow lacks. In 15 minutes of montage, we understand Laura (before her death) is desperate for something to break the monotony of her life as a small-town casino dealer. For a while, she thinks the tall, dark, and handsome thief who walks in mid-shift might be her life raft. But when Shadow trades in his life of crime for domesticity, Laura resumes her nightly ritual of asphyxiating herself with bug spray. She then embarks on an affair with Shadow’s best friend when he goes to prison for a failed casino heist she planned herself. Laura wanted to feel something — and now that she’s dead, partially resurrected (but still rotting) by a leprechaun’s magic coin, she finally has the sensation that eluded her in life. Laura 2.0 genuinely loves Shadow as much as 1.0 was indifferent to him. But Laura’s story doesn’t end with “Git Gone.” Browning is a jaded, insouciant presence in every subsequent episode. She has her own set of priorities, motivations, and adventures, all of which connect to Shadow’s but remain distinct from them.

Laura isn’t the only American Gods character who’s seen her role dramatically expanded, either. In “Lemon Scented You,” Laura teams up with Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), a belligerent leprechaun with alcoholism desperate to get his coin back. For a couple of episodes, they recruit Salim (Omid Abtahi), the Omani cab driver who was one half of that much-hyped sex scene from Episode 3. And in Sunday’s episode, Mad Sweeney had a “Git Gone”–style bottle episode of his own. Together, Laura and Mad Sweeney star in a road comedy parallel to Shadow and Mr. Wednesday’s. The subplot doesn’t steal the spotlight so much as lessen the burden: Whittle and partner Ian McShane are no longer tasked with holding up the entire series. Laura, Mad Sweeney, and Salim — all marginal or at least subsidiary presences in the book — are now promoted to proper cast members.

This new, slightly retooled American Gods retains the best and most madcap qualities of the first three episodes. Gillian Anderson still shows up in a different pop-culture-derived get-up each week, now joined by a creepily digitized Crispin Glover. Poignant vignettes still open each episode, including a prehistoric animation sequence and a border-crossing scene starring a Mexican Jesus. The show hasn’t suddenly transformed into a by-the-book procedural or lost the strangeness that makes both the series and Gaiman’s vision so distinctive. American Gods has just discovered the conventions of its new medium, and how to turn those limits into advantages. The key to being a great TV adaptation, it turns out, is pretty simple: Don’t make TV work for the original text — make the original text work for TV. The less American Gods acts like a faithful translation of a book and the more American Gods simply acts like a show, the better it gets.