Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Too Much TV: AMERICAN GODS (2017-?)

It surprises me sometimes, when I read what other people think of TV shows I like, to see them say, "It starts out slow, but then it gets good." I've seen that said about shows that had me after the first hour. What was "slow" about them? I've been tempted to say that good shows start "slow" only for impatient viewers who don't get what a show is trying to do -- or in the case of The 100, viewers who need time to let the show overcome prejudice against the network the program airs on. But it probably won't surprise you now to see me say that Bryan Fuller and Michael Green's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's award-winning novel starts out slow, but then gets good. What was "slow" about it? First, the first two episodes were deliberately confusing and alienating, probably as a matter of necessity, as the ex-con Shadow Moon (Ricky "Lincoln from The 100" Whittle) is abruptly immersed in an unfathomable underworld of conflicting cosmic forces. Second, Whittle's own performance took a while coming to life. The Wikipedia page for the novel (which I haven't read) describes Shadow as "taciturn," and on top of that he starts the series benumbed by the sudden death of his wife Laura (Emily Browning) in a car accident, not to mention the revelation that she was having an affair while he was in jail with his best friend, and was engaged in, er, a lewd act with him when the accident happened. A show like this needs more of a "WTF" sort of point-of-view character than Whittle's Shadow is at first, but he came around eventually. Third, as if Shadow's disorienting adventures and visions aren't enough, the first few episodes include tangental flashbacks to the arrival in America of various old gods, or their worshipers, as well as the alarming exploits of Bilquis (Yeltide Badaki), a wandering love goddess who sucks people in (not that way!!) so they don't come back. In short, for the first couple of hours, American Gods looked like a random collection of crazy shit happening without many clues to what it all meant, or why we should care. But then it got good.

After a violent encounter with what may be the world's tallest leprechaun (Pablo Schreiber), Shadow hires out as the "man" of the amiable grifter Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane in Peter Falk mode). It probably doesn't help the show that anyone who knows folklore can guess who Wednesday really is while Shadow remains clueless until the season finale, but it becomes clear enough to our hero that Wednesday is more influential than he looks. He definitely has a lot of odd friends, and some very dangerous enemies. Shadow drives him around the country as he recruits some of those friends for some sort of showdown he wants to stage in Wisconsin. Being Wednesday's man gets Shadow in trouble not just with the law but with characters who are supposed to be the new gods of the U.S.A. One, a malevolent nerd (Bruce Langley) represents computers or technology in general. Another (Gillian Anderson) represents the media and incarnates as various 20th century female celebrities. Still another, Mr. World (Crispin Glover) possibly represents the impending singularity in his desire to incorporate the old gods into a new global pantheon. Wednesday, at least, isn't having it. He and his allies intend to make a stand for their essential individuality, hoping against the odds to regain worshipers so they can exist on their own terms. Meanwhile, some old gods side with the new -- the Roman Vulcan becomes a god of firearms with a factory town full of crypto-fascist worshipers -- while others like Bilquis are co-opted into serving the modern agenda. How or why exactly entities like "technology" or "the media" incarnate as self-conscious gods is something I hope we'll learn in subsequent seasons, if I don't just read the book first, but even if the assault of the new gods doesn't fully make sense to me, the characters, particularly McShane's Wednesday, have me interested in the impending conflict.

It also helps that we've been given a strong subplot that illustrates both the fantastic potential of the gods and the collateral damage their struggle inflicts. While Shadow and Wednesday wend their way toward Wisconsin, Shadow's wife Laura is on their trail, attended by Mad Sweeney, the big leprechaun. "Dead Wife," as the leprechaun calls her, was reanimated when Shadow placed one of Sweeney's gold coins on her grave. Sweeney can drop coins like Harpo Marx could drop stolen silverware, but this was a special coin, the one that gave the leprechaun his legendary luck. It can restore Laura's consciousness and mobility, and endows her with superhuman strength, she remains a conspicuously rotting corpse, despite a touch-up from a mortician who is also the god Anubis (Chris Obi), though not in any way that really mars her beauty. She's drawn to Shadow because power radiates from him in some unique way, while Wednesday, we learn, is determined to keep Shadow away from her, having gone to the trouble of  having Sweeney use his bad-luck power to kill her in that car accident so that Shadow would leave prison unattached. Her interplay with Sweeney, who despises her despite her guilt-inducing resemblance to a long-lost love of his, and with a Muslim cab driver (Omid Abtahi) on his own quest to find a jinn with whom he'd had a one-night stand, grounds the show in more conventional and sympathetic experiences while Shadow continues to struggle with all his discoveries.

By the time the eight-episode season hit the homestretch, the vignettes that seemed merely whimsical earlier all worked to enhance our understanding of Wednesday's world. The writers could even get away with making most of the penultimate episode a flashback to Sweeney's past. Once American Gods really gets rolling it gives you the sense of a universe constantly opening out, a feeling comparable to what The Magicians gives you of a world where anything can happen and probably will. The show's most underrated element may be its music, credited to Brian Reitzell. It has a uniquely jazzy score, appropriately matching America's music to a new American (or Anglo-American) myth, that works even when it plays over flashbacks to 18th century Ireland. The acting has been pretty good overall, once Whittle found his footing, though Gillian Anderson is decidedly hit-or-miss when impersonating Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe and (almost unrecognizably) Judy Garland. I'm still not convinced that the show really makes sense, even on a metamythological level, but after an all-too-short first year that leaves the characters in Kentucky for a comparatively understated cliffhanger, I'm willing to give the producers another chance to convince me.

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