American Gods. Starz. Sunday, April 30, 9 p.m.
When Shadow Moon, a newly released prison inmate flying home for a funeral, expresses his admiration for a con artist he's just spotted hustling his way to a free upgrade in first class, the scammer shares his secret: "It's about getting people to believe in you." That's as good a summary as any of American Gods, the cult-favorite 2001 novel finally making its way to the screen on the Starz cable network. Is religion just a gigantic hustle? And does it matter, as long as people believe? Most importantly of all, what happens if they stop believing?
A rambunctious sci-fi/fantasy slice-and-dice of theology, myth, and hot-button sociology, with a generous dollop of pure depravity thrown in just for fun and Nielsen points, American Gods is a dizzying journey through humanity's obsession with theism and dogma. It doesn't always make sense—maybe it never makes sense—and its pace is dreadfully uneven. But a show in which a religious pilgrim trekking through the wilderness of a big-box electronic store is tempted by a goddess disguised as Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy, murmuring from a TV screen, "Hey, you ever wanted to see Lucy's tits?" is not easily dismissed.
It all starts off with that (seemingly) chance meeting at the airport. Moon (Ricky Whittle, The 100), just released a few days early from prison following the death of both his wife and best friend in an unsavory accident, encounters the sleazily charming con man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane, Deadwood). After a bit of byplay, Mr. Wednesday offers Moon a job—"legal, for the most part"—as his assistant; with little to go home to, Moon accepts.
What follows are a series of encounters with friends or enemies of Mr. Wednesday—it can be hard to tell the difference—ranging from the eccentric (that video proposition by the ersatz Lucy) to the threatening (a tall leprechaun less interested in pots of gold than in beating the bejeezus out of people). It is soon apparent that Moon has inadvertently struck some kind of infernal deal, though with whom or for what purpose remains unclear.
What readers of the novel know, but TV newbies won't discover for several sometimes-agonizing episodes, is that Moon has been sucked into a generation-gap war between old gods (like Jesus and Easter, the goddess of spring and renewal) who came to America in the beliefs of its first immigrants, and new ones, (like Media, the manipulative trickster who posed as Lucy, or Technical Boy, the ultimate cybergeek) who've arisen as the land's culture has transformed itself. Executive producers Bryan Fuller and Michael Green (who worked together on NBC's Heroes) have kept American Gods faithful to the vision of Neil Gaiman's novel as a meditation on the evolution of faith.
That doesn't mean readers of the novel won't see deviations. Some are merely stylistic; Technical Boy (British stage actor Bruce Langley) is no longer a tubby, pallid kid who looks like he lives in his parents' basement, the 20th-century stereotype of net geeks, but a ruthless Silicon Valley shark who vapes zillion-dollar-an-ounce synthetic toad skins when he's not pillaging and looting the company down the street. Others are more substantive. Moon's ghostly wife Laura (Emily Browning, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events) has gone from a slutty bit player to a major character in search of redemption.
The eight-episode series also shares the book's garish style. Except for the phlegmatic Moon, nearly every performance is madly over the top. That's often all for the good; it's practically impossible to tear your eyes away from the screen when McShane's lubricious treachery is afoot. But a little of Langley's vicious turn at Technical Boy goes a long way.
The overwrought-chic extends to the screenplay itself, where the Old-Testament sensibilities of the gods render the landscape sinister and the action disturbing. From weaponized vaginas to grindhouse gore to creepy graveyard sex, American Gods offers a baleful view of humans and their divinities.
That's fair enough—any god overseeing a world that includes the black plague, the Holocaust and Siberian work camps should be open to a little criticism—but Fuller and Green at times seem undecided whether they're making Gone in Sixty Seconds or a Jim Jarmusch blooper reel. A lonnnnnnng scene in which Moon plays checkers for his life with an axe-wielding, Slavic god of darkness may be an appropriately mocking wink at Ingmar Bergman, but dude, interminable is interminable.