The Good: Decent acting, Good direction
The Bad: Erratic and obscure narrative, Characters are generally inaccessible and aloof
The Basics: American Gods opens with "The Bone Orchard," which manages to make a surreal presentation of Shadow Moon getting out of prison and slowly finding his way into a much larger world.
There are few executive producers who attract an audience like Bryan Fuller. Fuller rose quickly from being a writer to a writer/executive producer transitioning from the short-lived fan-loved shows like Wonderfalls (reviewed here!) and Dead Like Me (reviewed here!) to more mainstream successes like Hannibal. When Star Trek Discovery was first announced, Bryan Fuller was the name the studio executives quickly threw out to placate fans (fans like me, who were not, generally, placated if for no other reason than that CBS had a distribution idea long before they had a solid series idea) and it worked for some. But when Bryan Fuller abandoned Star Trek Discovery, it turned a lot of eyes to the project that he was leaving it for: American Gods.
American Gods begins with "The Bone Orchard" and while Fuller's writing and producing began with an admitted obsession with the Star Trek franchise, his interests clearly lie in a very different place now. "The Bone Orchard" is about as far from Star Trek as one might imagine. "The Bone Orchard" opens immediately with a theological (albeit weird) bent and develops into a fantasy that is a fish-out-of-water pragmatist in a world quietly populated by deities.
Opening with "Coming To America, 813," Mr. Ibis writes the story of a small Viking ship landing in North America. When one of the crew is slain by a native arrow, the Vikings decide leave, remaining only on the beach while they wait for the wind to pick up. The Vikings poke out their eyes and fight to get the attention of the All Father, to no avail. After all their sacrifices, when the wind returns, they leave and never get in another boat or speak of their ordeal. Flashing forward to the present, Shadow Moon is days away from getting out of prison when he calls his wife, Laura. Shadow is concerned that something is not quite right and that night while he sleeps, he sees his wife in a dream. His dream continues to a surreal forest filled with bones, a sky that resembles a nebula, and trees that move on their own.
Shadow awakens the next morning where he is led to the Warden's office and told that Laura has died. Released that afternoon, Shadow Moon finds himself stuck in an airport waiting to get back to Eagle Point, Indiana. In the terminal, Shadow watches a grifter get upgraded to first class. On the plane, Shadow is bumped up to first class because the flight is overbooked. There, Shadow properly meets the grifter, who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. Wednesday talks to Shadow and offers Shadow a questionable job. Shadow turns down the job on principle, not wanting to risk going back to prison, and Mr. Wednesday seems to know specific details about Shadow Moon's past and present. When the plane is forced to land because of the weather, Shadow Moon gets a rental car and starts driving the rest of the way to Eagle Point for his wife's very awkward funeral.
"The Bone Orchard" has an ambitious, if very blood beginning. The viking segment is so gory that one would suspect that director David Slade is a big fan of the works of Quentin Tarantino. The episode is beautifully-shot, replays well, and has a surreal pace to it that shows a clear cinematic influence from Twin Peaks. "The Bone Orchard" is a beginning of a heavily-serialized story and the episode, appropriately, follows a skeptical character (much like the audience) being slowly introduced to a much larger world.
Unlike most of Bryan Fuller's post-Star Trek: Voyager works, "The Bone Orchard" starts American Gods off without a hook. Most of Fuller's works have an easy-to-describe one-line concept: girl dies and becomes a grim reaper, young woman starts hearing voices (possibly divine) from inanimate objects in the shape of animals, etc. American Gods does not have that type of hook for its protagonist and "The Bone Orchard" is a slow progression into anything resembling a larger narrative. American Gods is an adaptation of Neil Gaiman's book, which I have not read before now; "The Bone Orchard" feels very much like a first chapter.
On its own, "The Bone Orchard" is a tough pilot to get thrilled about. The episode is generally well-performed, but it has a surreal, often-disconnected quality, much like the cave scene in The Empire Strikes Back (reviewed here!). Shadow Moon has visions in his dreams and right around the time that viewers get interested in the journey that Shadow Moon is on trying to get back to his hometown, "The Bone Orchard" leaps to an unrelated scene featuring Bilquis bedding a blind date . . . before consuming him through her vagina. The storytelling for "The Bone Orchard" works better in the context of the larger season and the overall narrative than as a concise story of its own. Shadow Moon has a disconnected story in "The Bone Orchard" and given that the show and protagonist have no clear hook to the story, the pilot is a bit off-putting on its own and it requires a lot of faith to come back to the story to see where it is going.
"The Bone Orchard" does what it has to do with setting up the broader story of American Gods, but the mysterious elements surrounding Shadow Moon, his dead wife, and the identity of Mr. Wednesday are broken up with a narrator character and a sexual consumer, the sudden appearance of a leprechaun and an attack by a virtual-reality headset. "The Bone Orchard" sets up a complicated world filled with apparently supernatural individuals and the basic concept is a practical one; Shadow Moon enters the narrative filled with gods, demigods and supernatural beings with the same skepticism as the modern audience. Shadow's gritty, real world is opened up incrementally in "The Bone Orchard" as he transitions from the cold, hard reality of prison to slowly make himself open to a Faustian bargain with Mr. Wednesday.
On the acting front, Ricky Whittle dominates "The Bone Orchard." Whittle had a comparatively unmemorable part in Austenland (reviewed here!) and in "The Bone Orchard," he plays the role of Shadow Moon with suspicion and an aloof quality that is not entirely accessible, but is completely practical for the character. Whittle is joined on screen by Ian McShane and Pablo Schreiber for the bulk of "The Bone Orchard." McShane has a massive body of work and Mr. Wednesday allows him to immediately show off some range transitioning from lost and weak to cocky and subtly powerful. While Whittle has to play in subtle changes, McShane shows off range. Pablo Schreiber is impressive in that he plays another asshole character, in the form of Mad Sweeney the leprechaun, without any hint of his Orange Is The New Black antagonist.
The best pilot episodes get viewers to want to tune in to the next episode. On that front, "The Bone Orchard" is a dismal failure. On my second viewing of the episode, it occurred to me that if I didn't know where the story was going, I wouldn't have cared enough to continue. On my first trip through the first season of American Gods, I went into the second episode on the faith that Bryan Fuller had a plan. That plan or any real intrigue from the protagonist is lacking in "The Bone Orchard." Faith in Fuller is rewarded, but "The Bone Orchard" is a much more erratic start than some might hope given how so many genre fans raved about American Gods right off the bat.
For other pilot episodes, please check out my reviews of:
"Snow Gives Way" - Iron Fist
"The Cage"- Star Trek
"Pilot" - Twin Peaks
"The Gathering"- Babylon 5
[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into American Gods - The Complete First Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the debut season of the surreal series here!
For other television season and episode reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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