I got pretty excited when I heard there would be an American Gods TV adaptation, and even more excited when the cast announcements started coming out. I wasn’t familiar with Ricky Whittle, the actor who plays Shadow, but he sure looked how I imagined the character, and Ian McShane is so perfectly cast as Wednesday that my husband, who has never read the novel and is only vaguely familiar with the premise, observed that McShane looks like he’s having the time of his life.
I haven’t read the book in a long time, so I can’t say how well the first episode works in terms of being an adaptation of its source. Once I heard about the show, I deliberately didn’t go back to the novel. I don’t like to read the books adaptations are based on too close to watching the adaptation. I wind up being distracted by the changes, and have a hard time judging the work on its own merits. I also wasn’t crazy about American Gods when it first came out. I’d been a fan of Gaiman since the Sandman series and thought his style worked better in a medium with a visual component. But that was the very thing that made me think that American Gods would work well as a show.
Does it? I’d say so far, so good. I had my doubts with that opening scene, because I am really not a fan of voiceovers or narration in TV or movies. The scene is also so over the top in places (that arm flying across the screen with a sword still gripped in its hand!) that I wondered whether it was supposed to be funny. As a mythological obsessive I knew exactly what the scene was for and what the outcome would be, even though I haven’t read the book in years and this scene isn’t in it anyway. But as the first scene of the first episode of a new show, it didn’t fill me with confidence.
Then we moved to the present day, to Shadow in prison, and everything was fine.
As I said earlier, Whittle looks the part. He’s remarked in interviews on how he worked to get that look right (including hitting the gym), but he also has a collectedness of affect that contrasts with all the crazy shit going on around him. At first I was wondering whether that was going to work on-screen, even though Whittle’s manner is true to the character, until the scene in the cemetery with Audrey. (Interestingly, an article in AV Club indicates that that scene originally went differently. I’m glad Gaiman convinced the showrunners to change it because, among other things, Shadow’s reaction demonstrates that he’s not being passive.) There’s a lot going on in Whittle’s performance, and it’s kind of easy to miss because of all the wild stuff going on around him, but it’s there. I’m interested to see where the actor takes this role.
McShane is great, of course. Perhaps I’m biased; Ian McShane could sit on a stool reading Google search results and I’d probably enjoy it. He’s just having so much fun–and making what he’s doing look easy, which is a hallmark of a master at his craft. At the same time, though, he doesn’t take over every scene that he’s in. There’s plenty of room for everyone he’s sharing the stage with.
Somebody asked me what I thought about the Bilquis scene. I thought it was fine, in the sense that the showrunners made the right decision in how they filmed it. They pretty much had to do it as written or leave it out entirely. I haven’t watched all that much television, but my sense is that this particular sex scene is unique, and not solely for its climax (sorry not sorry). I’m reminded, in the novel and again when watching this scene in the show, of another scene from Gaiman’s work, this time in Sandman. That scene involved Ishtar, not Bilquis, and it was in a strip club, not a bedroom, but it’s about the only other pop culture example that comes to mind of a literal sex goddess for whom worshipers will literally give up everything. (I’m sure somebody will be along with others–feel free, as this is something I’m likely to take up further at some point.) That’s important for this story, but it’s also important as something we see all too rarely. Most of the (straight) sex I’ve seen on TV has involved either subjugation of the women involved, or terrible consequences afterwards–for her.
Overall it’s a promising beginning. One thing that American Gods has done successfully from the outset is establish its reality, and that reality is distinctly weird but no less concrete: the gods are real and they’re at war. I recently re-watched season 5 of Buffy, which has a god in it, but the entire point of Glory was that she was in a reality where she didn’t belong. The title of American Gods rather indicates that its gods won’t be disposed of so easily.