Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Erratic Surrealism Of American Gods Season 1.

The Good: Good performances, Intriguing set-up, Moments of character, Special effects
The Bad: Some truly dull characters, Deliberately opaque plot, Slow pacing
The Basics: The first season of American Gods works hard to set up something much better than itself.

The fundamental problem with creating great serialized television and fleshing out a world of one's own over the course of several episodes and seasons is that the burden falls upon the creator of such works - writers, executive producers, and directors - to create something that is both instantly compelling and does not rush its own story. Finding the balance is a hard thing, which is probably why so very many writers and executive producers today enjoy playing in already-established universes (Star Trek, Star Wars, the various super hero franchises built upon decades of source material, etc.). So, when a well-established creator of genre works leaves the comfort of one of those safe, already-conceived universes to do their own thing, it is the type of project that gets instant notoriety and comes with a behind-the-scenes intrigue that draws in an audience.

Bryan Fuller brought a look-in audience to the first season of American Gods when the renowned writer and executive producer did the legwork of creating Star Trek: Discovery and then abandoned the project in favor of American Gods. Fuller, who came up in Hollywood as a writer on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager (eventually working his way up to be one of the executive producers of that show) quickly departed the familiar to create his own works . . . all of which were obsessed with death or (some form of) the divine. And Fuller quickly achieved the sort of success that a cult hit creator has with Wonderfalls (reviewed here!), Dead Like Me (reviewed here!), and Pushing Daisies (first season reviewed here!). Fuller returned to franchise work with Hannibal and he was set to continue in that vein with Star Trek: Discovery, when he abruptly left that nascent project for American Gods.

American Gods allowed Fuller to play in an already-established world (the show is based upon a novel by Neil Gaiman) with an exceptional amount of freedom. Gaiman's American Gods had not been realized on screen before and Fuller had to create a show that would likely have a breadth and duration that would exceed the confines of the single novel source material. And the fundamental problem with the first season of American Gods is that it is built, almost entirely, on faith that the next component of the show will be better, more clear, more intriguing, than the current component. American Gods does not have an instantly compelling pilot episode . . . so viewers have to have faith that the second episode will be better. The midseason diverges from the protagonist, so viewers have to have faith that the show will refocus; the season builds to a climax that requires faith that the second season will pay-off the massive risk in a satisfying way . . . the entire first season is a series of risks requiring a deferment of true gratification, which is an inherently problematic way to create a serialized television show. That said, it is also one of the best ways to establish a larger narrative that has a real ability to develop and grow as it goes on.

Unfortunately for American Gods Season 1, the show's protagonist is put in the unenviable position of being one of the two least-interesting characters in the show. Season 1 of American Gods is built around Shadow Moon, a character who quite reasonably travels through the modern world without any faith as a low-level scam artist and conman. Paroled from prison early when his wife dies, Shadow Moon finds himself in the company of a mysterious man, who calls himself Mr. Wednesday, and the two begin a cross-country journey to a meeting Wednesday plans to attend. While the character of Shadow Moon might sound initially interesting, he is emotionally shut-off and his distance makes him entirely inaccessible. Shadow Moon drifts from prison to learning about the death of his wife to having his mind slowly opened to the presence of divine entities on Earth with no emotional journey. American Gods Season 1 is more the physical journey of Shadow Moon than it is his emotional trip. Indeed, one suspects if American Gods achieves a cult status that leads to merchandising, a t-shirt of "The Many Emotions Of Shadow Moon" will take its place on the racks next to identical t-shirts for Spock and Darth Vader.

And it is hard to criticize Ricky Whittle, who plays Shadow Moon, for the portrayal of the character. Rewatching the season multiple times, the first season of American Gods for Shadow Moon is built around the season's final moment and Shadow Moon's revelatory moment. Unfortunately for Whittle and American Gods Season 1, the moment of supposed epiphany is the most odd combination of understated (in the performance) and over-the-top (for the line). The result is a subtle character who ought to be the embodiment of the doubting, jaded, unimpressed audience within the show, but instead never becomes emotionally real enough to truly connect with the audience.

While Shadow Moon is emotionally inaccessible and impossible to invest emotionally in because of his unrealistic emotional distance from everything he encounters, Laura Moon is flat-out unlikable. Shadow Moon's wife, Laura, has an affair, dies, and is magically resurrected. Laura is a snotty, mean, bored and often-boring character who is the subject of two episodes of the eight-episode first season of American Gods and those episodes do nothing to make her more likable or interesting. What is perhaps most impressive about Laura Moon is that actress Emily Browning plays her - and her ancestor character, Essie MacGowan - with a decent emotional range. Browning's performance in American Gods Season 1 inspired me to give Sucker Punch (reviewed again here!) a second viewing and what struck me most about her growth as an actress between the two works is her ability or willingness to emote with her expressions in American Gods. Laura Moon might be flat-out unlikable, but Browning plays her well.

The first season of American Gods has a remarkably simple plot - so much so that it is almost unsurprising that two episodes have to almost entirely diverge from it in order to get the season up to eight episodes: Shadow Moon is paroled from prison when he meets Mr. Wednesday and enters his employ. Shadow's job is to drive Mr. Wednesday around and protect him from threats, but he soon ends up helping Wednesday with schemes like robbing a bank's night depository and he finds himself the target of divine entities (new gods). While Shadow Moon drives Mr. Wednesday from one meeting to another (Mr. Wednesday's meetings are with classic Russian, Greek/Roman, and African gods now living in the United States), Laura Moon, resurrected by a magical Leprechaun's coin, follows Shadow's journey in the presence of the leprechaun Mad Sweeney and a man who was touched by a djinn (man, I hope that "Touched By A Djinn" is the name of a second season episode now!).

The two most consistently-represented divine beings - the leprechaun Mad Sweeney and the god Mr. Wednesday - easily steal the thunder from the two human protagonists. As well, Media's infrequent appearances instantly capture the viewer's attention and when Mr. World (the antagonist who Mr. Wednesday fears) finally makes an appearance, it is powerful. Media is expertly played by Gillian Anderson, who seems to have a great time portraying Lucy Ricardo, David Bowie, Marilyn Monroe, and other incarnations of legendary people who were made through their media presence. Mad Sweeney is caustic and sarcastic and Pablo Schreiber's embodiment of him is impressive in that Mad Sweeney is an asshole, much like Schreiber's Orange Is The New Black Pornstache character, who Schreiber plays in an entirely different way from the last iconic dickbag he played.

Ian McShane plays Mr. Wednesday and he is perfectly cast for the role of a god who is essentially down on his luck and looking to build a new base of worshipers. McShane plays Wednesday well, maintaining a level of intrigue throughout the first season of American Gods that is both consistent and compelling. The ability to do that is impressive considering that Shadow Moon is a particularly inattentive character whose epiphany is hinged on being told explicitly who Mr. Wednesday is in the season finale . . . which is problematic in that the audience is told exactly who Wednesday is a few episodes prior to that. McShane, though, has the bearing, demeanor, and on-screen gravitas to credibly play a character who is wise, commanding, and has a trickster aspect to him. McShane dominates every scene he is in (in the best possible way).

There are more characters in American Gods, but in the first season, they are kept a supporting characters, most of whom are deliberately obscured and/or set up for bigger roles in subsequent seasons. And part of that is because the first season of American Gods deliberately obscures the overall plot arc of the season. The Old Gods who are living now in the United States are struggling for relevance in the face of New Gods - Media, technology, and interconnectedness. The Old Gods are either attempting to reinvent themselves to stay alive (the show features vignettes of various gods, including one whose entire base of worshipers has completely died out, thus killing the god) or are being marshaled to fight the New Gods outright. But most of the big meetings do not happen in the first season and the outright war is not the subject of the first season; American Gods defers its action, character growth, and (for much of the season) true purpose.

The direction in the first season of American Gods is homogeneously wonderful. American Gods Season 1 is a beautiful-looking show and it flows effortlessly between surreal scenes and a cold, literal world.

Ultimately, the first season of American Gods is an essential bedrock season of a serialized show. The characters are established, the purpose is (eventually) made clear, and the concept is solid. Whether Bryan Fuller and the rest of the American Gods team can pull off the larger story in a satisfying way will determine whether the investment viewers place in watching the first season is paid off, but on its own, the first season of American Gods is far more erratic and requires far more faith to invest in than one might want to admit.

For a better understanding of exactly what this season entails, please check out my reviews of the individual episodes at:
"The Bone Orchard"
"The Secret Of Spoons"
"Head Full Of Snow"
"Git Gone"
"Lemon Scented You"
"A Murder Of Gods"
"A Prayer For Mad Sweeney"
"Come To Jesus"

For other works from the 2016 – 2017 television season, please check out my reviews of:
Twin Peaks - Season 3 ("The Return")
Doctor Who - Season 10
Glow - Season 1
Orange Is The New Black - Season 5
House Of Cards - Season 5
The Flash - Season 3
Supergirl - Season 2
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt - Season 3
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. - Season 4
Sense8 - Season 2
Dear White People - Season 1
Legends Of Tomorrow - Season 2
The Walking Dead - Season 7
Thirteen Reasons Why - Season 1
Grace And Frankie - Season 3
Iron Fist - Season 1
Love - Season 2
Santa Clarita Diet - Season 1
A Series Of Unfortunate Events - Season 1
One Day At A Time - Season 1
Travelers - Season 1
The OA - Season 1
Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life
"Invasion!" - Arrow
Luke Cage - Season 1
Stranger Things - Season 1


For other television 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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