For those who worship Bryan Fuller as the aesthetic god of the Peak TV era, the first episode of Starz’s long-anticipated American Gods is a masturbatory delight. Slow motion blood spray, orgasmic montages, a brilliantly chaotic score; from every corner of “The Bone Orchard”, Fuller’s aesthetics and penchant for the grandiose are on full display, picking up right where he left off at the end of Hannibal‘s third season. And like the gloriously flawed final season of Hannibal, American Gods’ pilot is so enamored with its visual metaphors that it almost forgets to tell a coherent story, obsessed with a technique that can only be described as “arthousing the shit out of it”. Fans of the novel certainly will be able to soak in the many well-crafted visual sequences, moments so eloquently designed as silent exposition for familiar viewers, but so completely out of context and nonsensical for anyone lacking any sort of meaningful footing in Neil Gaiman’s world of gods warring on Earth.
In short, “The Bone Orchard” is exactly what anyone with knowledge of Fuller’s recent work would’ve expected; utterly disengaged from the surface level plot mechanics and traditional character building techniques of most dramas, focused instead completely on conveying narrative through editing and majestic symbolism. Surprisingly, however, how Fuller, director David Slade, and co-writer Michael Green approach their protagonist with such a cold distance; regardless of how the book portrays Shadow Moon, “The Blood Orchard” is only interested in the extremes of Shadow’s emotions, the plot constantly pushing him to the brink of his own humanity, just to revel in the confusion and misery surrounding him.
Understandably, “The Bone Orchard” is constructed around Shadow Moon’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, which makes it kind of hard to explore the intricacies of an ex-con trying to gain his footing in a world that’s changing in front of his eyes (literally, and metaphysically). It begins with him getting out of jail, and ends the next day, with him burying his wife, who died the day of his release giving his best friend (husband to her best friend, no less) some poorly timed road head. Slut shaming undertones in the source material aside, American Gods lacks in nuance, which makes Shadow Moon a nebulous character to focus the first hour around.
When Shadow Moon (a “man of reason”, as we’re told) is interacting with Mr. Wednesday, of course, American Gods begins to deliver on some of the cheekily-delivered philosophic bents visible in the hilarious tonal shift of the Viking-themed flashback, arguably the pilot’s single most effective, exciting sequence. Mr. Wednesday is the Gandalf of American Gods, and Ian McShane bathes himself in the mannerisms of Mr. Wednesday, a performance that is as showy as it is carefully constructed, a technical masterpiece that livens every non-trippy moment of the 65-minute premiere.
Mr. Wednesday gives a sense of scope to the world that no other scene even tries to approach; one of the only real issues with the American Gods pilot is how goddamned obsessed and satisfied with itself it is. In scenes like the leprechaun’s introduction, this works to the show’s favor; Pablo Schreiber’s inability to be subtle in any way, shape or form, actually plays right into the hypothetical ethos of the show. However, in other moments (like the scenes in the woods, which are Hannibal-esque, without the metaphorical clarity), the tendency to fall down every visual rabbit hole sells some of the character material short, at least in the first hour.
In fact, it’s not until American Gods passes that hour mark, that it begins to reveal the table and how its pieces are set upon them; and even then, it feels like Gods offering a perfunctory scene to give explicit definition to its larger, unmentioned conflicts in the most meaningless way possible. A teenager who puts VR spider face masks onto adults for the purpose of freaking them out about some vague genocidal sounding behavior is certainly entertaining, but is bound to leave many casual viewers (the kind Starz needs to expand this audience beyond the Fuller and Gaiman hardcore) confused, and thus, barely invested in the crazy moments Shadow ends up in during his first 48 hours of prison. Understandably, the audience is supposed to feel thrown in the middle of a mysterious, supernatural conflict along with the de facto protagonist; however, in a pilot as dense as “The Bone Orchard”, this can make for some extremely hazy, unsatisfying storytelling.
There are many different ways American Gods could’ve been approached as an adaptation (including lesser versions that stray away from some of the cultural and racial reflections this pilot offers); for the most part, Fuller feels like a great fit, his energetic creativity and authorial ambition translating Gaiman’s words into visual feasts (which I promise will be the last underhanded Hannibal reference, if I can muster any semblance of self-control). Having David Slade as the director allows for Fuller to double down on his habitual approach to image construction and camera movement, giving life and creativity to an adaptation that is fairly straightforward (at least, in its most coherent moments) in its initial attempt in translating Gaiman’s material. I mean, it’s hard to call a sequence like the Bilquis scene – aka the “woman swallows a dude with her vagina” scene – straightforward, but viewing the episode as a whole (which Bilquis’s big scene is arguably the least logical part of, something that exists entirely in isolation of the material around it), it feels like Fuller and company played it safe narratively, in order to flex their muscles creatively in other areas during this first hour.
Entertaining but nearly incoherent to anyone unfamiliar with the source material, the first hour of American Gods is more Carnivale than it is Westworld, its reflections on the world it inhabits one of the deeper, quieter layers, rather than a shining goal post detailing Why This Show Is Important. Even the show’s lynching scene, which comes after the god of technology arrives with his faceless goons to intimidate (and kill) Shadow, keeps its observations about race mostly wordless, conveying its message through Shadow’s dreams and worldviews. Unfortunately, that balance of intrigue and subtlety is hard pressed to be found through the rest of the pilot, which is certainly charming, engaging, and stunning in its own right, but falls short of expectations when it comes to building a bridge to the audience, and inviting them into a strange world, where two sets of deities are preparing for war against the other.
I can’t knock a television show for being too confident in its awesomeness, but it feels like moments of American Gods wallows self-indulgently in said cool factor, which leaves a slightly hollow thematic aftertaste. Those who pray at the Altar of Bryan will undeniably throw themselves into the deep end of American Gods’ taste for loud, lavishly conveyed symbolism; those just looking for a good, coherent television show might be left a little confused about what the hell actually happened across those first 65 minutes. Certainly an extremely promising start, but not quite the mind-blowing debut many expected after the three-year-long wait for “The Bone Orchard”.
American Gods airs Sunday nights at 9pm ET on Starz.