Television’s current golden-age is well-established and recognised, the emergence of streaming services meaning creators are no longer bound by the strict guidelines placed on them by advertisers. The concerns of corporations who only want certain dramas to be associated with their product is less and less of a concern. As contradictory as it sounds, this is even being felt in shows that broadcast one through commercial stations as they push boundaries in an effort to compete with Netflix and Amazon Prime. Shows on all platforms have opportunities to do something great. There are few in the industry more keen to exploit this than Mr Bryan Fuller.
Fuller’s penchant for testing the extremes of what he can get away with made him the perfect candidate to helm the TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, itself an incredibly ambitious piece of literature following Shadow Moon as he becomes exposed to the world of new deities and the battle brewing with the old guard. On his CV, Fuller could boast having already proved a dab hand at the wonderfully weird (Pushing Daisies) and added a fresh spin on a well-established literary figurehead (Hannibal), which also took liberties with what NBC would deem suitable. His eye for the arty and weird perfectly accompanies the story, which needed to not take itself seriously to stand a chance at all. It’s not Fuller’s best work- Hannibal was a lot more accessible while still enjoying high production values and solid performances- but it strives for quality in every frame.
American Gods is not the epic adventure you expect from the off, instead hitting the ground with a cocksure swagger, aware of its own quality and where the plot will take you and expecting you to stick around. Many characters appear in the first episode but are not exactly introduced- they appear in scenes that don’t have much context and the viewer just has to accept it. What follows throughout the series is an experiment in how far you can push sexual acceptance, tolerance for the absurd, and patience. Even by today’s television standards, this is a dangerous mix that can leave your hard work teetering on the edge of cancelled. In this case, it falls into the category of well-calculated, as the series was recently confirmed for a second season.
There is something to spark anyone’s interest- Gillian Anderson as David Bowie, Ian McShane being in it at all, cinematography that belongs in an art gallery, representation across sexuality, race and gender- but throwing them all together does not mean that spark holds steady as a flame. That’s not an indictment of the viewers that bail, or the show itself, it’s just how it is. In fact, there is a case for those who jump ship. The show’s worst habit is that it makes a bad assumption- that everyone watching has read the book. TV should make sense to those who haven’t done background research. This is not what prevents it from being a show for the casual viewer but is certainly a contributing factor. There will also be those who are not quite as desensitised to overt sex scenes or accustomed to so much blood on screen it could be used for the diving at Tokyo 2020. However, a casual viewer is less likely to stumble across this and the first episode makes it abundantly clear this is not targeted at the fan of cop and hospital dramas.
Despite its scope, American Gods is still a bit of a slow burner. The epic story does happen but characters settle with you around mid-way through the series. Its story consequently benefits from characters finding each other and their development evolves from the conflict of interaction. Learning to fully accept the weird by then also helps. Seemingly random scenes are less intrusive and gel together better. In this sense, your journey through the show is similar to that of Shadow’s. Everything is strange and nothing makes sense but then watching it all unfold is just your life now.
If you are not sold on the show there is another trick it has up its sleeve. Even with the graphic violence, absurd visuals and unashamed sex scenes, the biggest shock of all is that Ricky Whittle was in Hollyoaks but can actually act. It’s worth watching just to see that for yourself.
American Gods is available on Blu-ray and DVD from July 31st, courtesy of StudioCanal