Every good reader and writer knows that to build a good story one requires a structure, and often, that structure is the bones of another, older tale. Almost every fantasy series does just this, bringing us into a world whose battle for existence is really just another in an ongoing conflict, only the gaps between them are so large that it feels new for those involved. A Song of Ice and Fire, Lord of the Rings, even Harry Potter, many of them hint at what has come before, and often make it sound as though that battle, the one we just about missed, was actually the more exciting and epic and dark one; too bad we got the watered down present instead.
Neil Gaiman’s work of genius, American Gods, comes at this in a slightly different way. Here, the past, one of bloody glory and sacrifice, literally wages war with the present and future. The old gods, fearing irrelevance in the modern world, go to war against the smug new ones, and a crisis of belief envelopes the United States. ‘This is the only country that doesn’t know what it is,’ the mysterious Mr. Wednesday tells Shadow, our protagonist, at one point. The book was first published in 2001. The TV series debuted this year, but it’s eerily timely, considering everything that’s happening, not just in the US, but many other places in the world.
My relationship with American Gods is one of deep respect, bordering on an almost reverential awe. I think this is Gaiman’s greatest work, and nothing he’s done, before or after, comes close. It’s such an ambitious idea, to distill the soul of an entire country, and pour it into these forms from all over the world, but somehow, he managed it. The sheer audacity of it, to take all these immigrant stories and not just elevate them to the level of the divine, but to actually have the divine take form on your page and give it an almost disturbingly human quality, so the gods piss and fuck and act as ridiculously human–if not more so—than the believers they need so badly—this is soemthing that so few writers do with any grace, let alone the mastery that Gaiman displays. Our myth writers, who sell in the thousands, cannot compare. This, this is myth writing or retelling or casting or whatever you want to call it. It’s making the old new in such a way that you can see it happening, and only marvel at the sheer craft with which its done, like a glass house in which you can see all the beams and rafters, and appreciate the architect’s vision for what it truly is.
Anyway, enough blathering about the book. How did the TV series do? I was nervous, coming to it, which is why I put off viewing it for so long. The book was so cerebral, so intense an experience, that I felt no TV show could do it justice. The avalanche of great reviews calling it the show of the year and whatnot only made that apprehension worse. There’s something about extremely glowing reviews that puts me off; maybe it’s the hipster in me, who refuses to like what the mainstream has dubbed incredible. Not unless I dubbed it incredible first, ya know.
So how does the show compare? Some of the key elements are the same: Shadow, a taciturn, brooding, muscular man gets out of jail to find that his wife has died in an accident. He is hired by Mr. Wednesday, a tricky old man who has some sort of grand plan up his sleeve, one which Shadow does not entirely understand. There is a crazy leprechaun named Mad Sweeney. The dead wife comes back to life and follows Shadow around. Gods old and new turn up in Shadow’s path and taunt or tease him, with lethal consequences or not depending on whose side they are on. And the whole is interspersed with flashbacks, stories of side characters, from the past or the present or in between, and how they came to America, bringing with them their beliefs and traditions, and their gods. Now, the gods feel abandoned, their followers turning to newer deities like Technology and Media (played by a totally-enjoying-herself Gillian Anderson), and the incense and sacrifice that once formed the staple of their diets, their very existence, is gone.
The casting is pretty damn good. Ian McShane plays Mr. Wednesday, and he does bring the character’s slippery charm and humour to the fore, but doesn’t let viewers forget that within, something else roils and churns, soething much older and more sinister. Ricky Whittle is broody and beautiful as Shadow, and I really liked Emily Browning as Laura Moon, or ‘dead wife’ as she’s more often called. The show has the added advantage of focusing on Laura more than the book did in some ways, following her journey, which parallels Shadow’s own. Just as Shadow journeys from doubt to belief and back, Laura, a much more nihilistic character, does the same, and Browning plays her clutching at meaning in an understated manner, which perhaps makes it all the more impactful. There also seem to be expanded roles for some of the side characters here, such as Bilquis, a fertility goddess, and Mad Sweeney, who really lingered on the edges in the book, only careening chaotically into the middle of the action now and then. I suppose this is done to pad out the whole season, and leave enough meat for a second, if not third and fourth as well.
There are downsides to this padding—and that means that the ‘conflict’ doesn’t really start until well into the season, if then. Some of the episodes are stuffed with too much long drawn out conversation, which works well for a comedy, or more ‘realist’ drama like Mad Men, but here runs the risk of being boring. I could have done with less hijinks with Laura for instance, and more of Mr. Nancy, the form of Anansi the Spider. Or perhaps more of the old gods and their stories, and less of Mr. Wednesday and Shadow conversing? Shadow is never the most entertaining conversationalist, so really, these are one man shows that we could have done without.
Would I recommend it? Let me put it this way: you can live without watching it. It’s stylistically done, yes. Some of the acting is great, yes. But does it string together well as a story? So much that is great about the Gaiman novel is that though it appears a little fragmented, though it takes a while for the shape of the ‘quest’ to come together, and even then it is only a small glimpse of what we must understand as a much larger battle that human minds cannot possibly comprehend, the whole works together. This? It’s a bit draggy in parts, and too incomprehensible in others, and overall, lacks the big picture amazement that say, Game of Thrones or Legion have. Hopefully it’ll be tighter next season.
But if you haven’t already, go read the book. Trust me, that is one thing you will not regret.