While reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, I was often stopped in the street by people who saw it in my hands and wanted to have an impromptu pow-wow about its greatness. I often have a book in my hands, and I’ve never before encountered such reactions, which I enjoyed more than the novel. Gaiman’s narrative is imaginatively conceived, but it’s composed of hundreds of pages of exposition preceding a battle that never commences. Gaiman tells a long shaggy-dog joke, in which humankind’s various gods across the ages are revealed to be as gullible as their worshipers, subject to the manipulations of a rigged society that distracts us from our subservience with a trumped war between cultural factions that serve the same leader. It’s quite resonant politically, but the novel is all theme. There’s barely a plot, the characters are ciphers, and Gaiman’s prose is lean and studiously workmanlike. The notion of gods as scared and foolish projections of their scared and foolish creators (for we are their gods) is poignant though, and it’s this idea that’s ostensibly captured readers’ imaginations.
In the opening minutes of “The Bone Orchard,” the first episode of Starz’s American Gods, it’s evident that this adaptation is going to decisively evade criticism of a workmanlike style. We’re clearly in the world of co-creator Bryan Fuller, who oversaw NBC’s Hannibal, as a man on screen dips a quill pen into ink, drawing his arm back in a rapturous slow-mo arc that’s a little much given the smallness of the scene and awesome precisely for being too much. The writer tells us of a time when Erik the Red’s ancestors first landed on North America, and we see the ocean gleaming in the writer’s eyes as he concocts the image. Then we’re off with the Vikings in a flashback.
The Vikings land on the shore and one of them is expressionistically riddled with hundreds of arrows—so many that he resembles a humanoid porcupine. The Vikings decide to leave, but there’s no wind to power their boat across the ocean, and so they pray to the All-Father, their god of war, offering him sacrifices that culminate in their slaughtering of their own, dramatized in a splattery Grand Guignol bloodbath. Gallons of blood flood the screen while limbs fly around with willy-nilly abandon. During this sequence, we can practically hear Fuller cackling with relief at the freedom afforded by cable programming. (It might also occur to you that, if the Vikings had to slay themselves, then they might as well have stayed on land and fought their enemies. Such is the illogic of indoctrinated faith.)
Flash-forwarding to the present day, the improbably named Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) is finishing the final stretch of a three-year prison sentence, lifting weights with his bunk mate, Low Key Lyesmith (Jonathan Tucker). (Hint: Say “Low Key” real fast to yourself.) Low Key memorably advises Shadow not to piss off those “bitches” at the airport counter when he flies home, because that’s a sure way to wind up back in prison. Shadow is testy by the time he reaches the airport anyway, because his wife, Laura (Emily Browning), has died in a car crash. But when he gets to the terminal and encounters the usual shit that one encounters in such places, he keeps his cool and notices a man who’s running an amusingly obvious sympathy grift so as to get himself a first class ticket. Shadow sits in first class next to this man, who calls himself Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), and they commence in a supernatural adventure that will presumably span the series, as it did the book.
Like many pilot episodes, “The Bone Orchard” mows through a wealth of exposition, though people who haven’t read the book are likely to find it bewildering—a possibility that Fuller, co-creator Michael Green, and director David Slade milk so as to go wild on moody and free-associative imagery. What does the Viking prologue have to do with anything? Why does Shadow dream of a buffalo person with a fiery snout, and of a bone orchard, and of trees with mystical powers? And what about the scene where a beautiful woman, Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), swallows a man whole with her vagina at the climax of a ritual in which she pleads for the man to worship her? Fuller and Green dress their figurative chess board with a few of the requisite pieces, but newcomers to this story will not yet know how they move.
Gaiman was so obsessed with mapping the relationships between various Norse and North American gods, both ancient and contemporary, that he could hardly be bothered with tending to dramatic niceties such as suspense and convincing character relationships. (A problem with a story about gods: deus ex machinas inherently run rampant.) In “The Bone Orchard,” Fuller and Green compensate for the busy plot with a lurid irreverence that serves as a startling contrast from the book’s tonal nondescription. In the book, Wednesday and Shadow’s meeting on the plane is treated by Gaiman as a straightforward mystery scene with strands of dark comedy, while “The Bone Orchard” pumps this moment up with horny aggression and delightfully obscene, plot-foreshadowing one-liners, reveling in the way that McShane chews his dialogue like spicy cud.
There was sex and violence in Gaiman’s novel (the man-eating vagina is his invention), but it’s almost as if the author viewed those textures as necessary evils. He’s drawn to the power of his gods, and to the legacy of oppression they reveal to be endemic to the human species. So far, Fuller and Green are fascinated with the sex and violence, getting off on exploitive, hallucinatory sensationalism. Every moment of their American Gods is pitched at a melodramatic register of 10, and the set design explodes with stifled machismo, most amusingly in a bar that resembles a neon alligator snout. In the book, Shadow’s meeting with Audrey (Betty Gilpin) at Laura’s funeral was perfunctorily drawn as a scene to be gotten out of the way as quickly as possible, so as to get Shadow back on the road with Wednesday. In “The Bone Orchard,” however, Audrey is operatically bitter and grief-stricken, trying to screw Shadow atop Laura’s grave as revenge for Laura’s affair with her own husband. It’s a vividly sad and weird moment, embodying the emotional chaos that Fuller and Green prize.
So far, though, American Gods lacks the emotional gravitas of the astonishing Hannibal. There’s a sense that Fuller and Green read Gaiman’s novel and saw a prime opportunity to apply the aesthetic that was honed on Hannibal with only a cursory consideration as to what it means in this context. “The Bone Orchard” bears more than whiff of formal masturbation, though it reminds me of how much I missed Fuller’s flamboyantly decadent sensibility. It remains to be seen whether this American Gods will manage to be its own thing, or serve as an indirect encore to a greater series.