Yesterday at SXSW in Austin, Texas, a packed house gathered to worship gods that will beat you up, get you drunk and sex you into oblivion. If the first episode of the TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s beloved novel American Gods is any indication, the masses will be showing up to give their love again and again.
The screening of American Gods began with a video message from Gaiman, who wasn’t in attendance. The award-winning author expressed his excitement at producers how Bryan Fuller and Michael Green translated the 16-year-old novel for series television. The pilot began with a quick look at Mr. Ibis writing into a notebook, transitioning to the scene from the past that he was writing about: an ancient Viking expedition that landed in America 100 years before Leif Ericsson. The would-be conquerors were shown being quickly rebuffed by a rain of arrows launched by unseen assailants. Unable to plunder as intended, the Vikings decided to go home but couldn’t set sail due to a lack of wind. Desperate to leave, they carved an idol of Odin to pray to. But the air remained still. They were then shown putting their own eyes out as a tribute to the Norse god-king but that too was to no avail.
It wasn’t until the Vikings burned one of their own alive on a funeral pyre that they realized the depth of sacrifice needed to speed them home. They drew swords and started warring against each other—the most effective show of fealty to an entity described as a war god—and the wind kicked up fiercely in response. Blood exploded all over the screen as bodies were split in half and heads went flying. The bloodied and disillusioned Norsemen boarded their ship and headed home, and the camera lingered on the idol of Odin they left behind.
From there, the show headed to prison where we met main character Shadow Moon (played by Ricky Whittle), a con man five days away from release and a longed-for reunion with his wife Laura. Some of the dialogue in these scenes was pulled verbatim from the book, like when Shadow’s cellmate talks about how America started to go astray when folks stopped hanging people. Shadow’s release from prison came earlier than expected, for tragic reasons, prompting him to get back to the small town of Eagle Rock, Indiana as quickly as possible.
His journey brought him into contact with Mr. Wednesday, who readers of the novel know is really Odin incarnate. The show gave a funny walk-on moment to this pivotal character, as he pretended to be a befuddled old man so he could scam his way into first class status on an airplane flight. Ian McShane is clearly having fun playing the diminished deity, reveling in the salty language and I-know-something-that-you-don’t mind game that he plays with Shadow after their first meeting. In one memorable line, he groused to Shadow, “I offer you the worm from my beak and you act like I fucked your woman.”
The pilot covered the first few chapters of the book, changing scene to Los Angeles to introduce goddess Bilquis, out on an date with someone she met on the internet. As in the book, the night progressed way beyond an awkward round of drinks. Bilquis led the middle-aged man back to her blood-red room decorated with crimson candles and fertility idols, saying “I’m not what I once was… you don’t think I’m spent?” After he complimented her beauty, they stripped down and start sliding their naked bodies around each other. She pled with him to worship her and he gladly complied, hypnotically exalting her in the language of old as they continued to fuck. The camera pulled out to show Bilquis having grown in size and her hapless suitor becoming enveloped into her body. She consumed him completely and leaned back sated and fearsome.
The last part of the pilot showed Shadow’s bitter return home, where he walked into the funeral of his dead wife. A reunion with Laura’s best friend Audrey ensued, made uncomfortably awkward by her revelation that their spouses were sleeping with each other. After rejecting Audrey’s attempt at revenge sex in the cemetery hours later, Shadow came upon an odd tech artifact. It transformed into a VR headset that leapt onto his face and transported Shadow into the realm of Technical Boy, one of the New Gods of the modern era.
Faceless goons generated in this scene and assaulted Shadow as, puffing on a giant vape pen, Technical Boy tried to get information on Wednesday’s mysterious plans. “We are the future,” the younger deity explained to Shadow. “Prayers are just so much fucking spam.” The pilot ended with Shadow catapulted back in the real world where Technical’s goons swarmed over him and pummeled him into submission. A noose materialized and Shadow was strung up on a tree branch, kicking and choking in gruesome detail as he slid into an ugly death.
Whittle does a good job of communicating the quiet, roiling unease inside of Shadow as his life falls apart around him and surreal dream sequences generate a sense of foreboding that teases potent. He plays well of McShane, recreating the wary odd-couple dynamic between the two characters. Yetide Bataki imbues Bilquis with a weary sexiness that seemed appropriately ancient and dangerous. The sonic backdrop for the shows leaned heavy on blues and jazz, intertwining the two American musical forms around scenes of tragedy, fisticuffs and trickery.
As to be expected for a premium cable ongoing series, this version of American Gods has been slathered in blood and sex-sweat. But the original iteration of this story had bodily fluids aplenty, too, and the pilot still harbored the literary mythological underpinnings that generate the symbolism and meaning crucial to Gaiman’s successful endeavors. In a Q&A session that followed the screening—snippets of which can be found below— Fuller remarked on the changed political landscape, saying “we are now telling massive immigration stories in a climate that vilifies immigrants.”
Orlando Jones, late of Sleepy Hollow, will be playing African trickster god Mr. Nancy and talked about the excitement and responsibility he felt at playing a character that invoked the cunning that the African slaves needed to survive after being bought to America into slavery. He also freaked out hilariously after seeing the Bilquis scene. “I just saw a woman suck a whole man into her vagina. I’m not ready.” He and the rest of the world will have some time to prepare their sacrifices and burnt offerings. American Gods premieres on Starz on April 30th.