American Gods: The Bone Orchard

"I love you. Something feels weird."

So, a television series adapted from the extraordinarily beloved novel by Neil Gaiman, as interpreted by Bryan Fuller, who gave us one of the best television shows of all time in Hannibal, and Michael Green, who wrote Green Lantern but is probably still a decent person and nice to babies and small animals.

So... no expectations then...

Starz' American Gods is a curious beast, brilliant and gorgeous and upsetting and strange. Based on a book first published in 2001, which was then substantially updated for its 10th anniversary edition, it still manages to be very much its own thing. With that in mind, it's worth a quick word up front:

I had never read American Gods, when I stumbled across the first episode of the series. I was mostly interested in it because I was a huge fan of both Neil Gaiman's Sandman comic and Bryan Fuller's Hannibal, and wanted to see how the two influences meshed together. For what it's worth, I actually also like Green Lantern, but that's not really relevant as I didn't make the Michael Green connection at the time.

Not having read the book, in my occasionally humble opinion, actually improves season one of the show. I have since read it, or to be more accurate listened to it on Audible, because it really was a very long wait between season one and two. To be honest, I sort of wish I hadn't, because the spiraling 'wtf'-ness – if I might coin a phrase – of encountering all this in a vacuum really heightens the viewing experience. Ah well, that ship has sailed for me now. In any case, this is my long-winded way of saying that we're going to be looking strictly at the show itself here without considering anything from the book. I have no idea what percentage of people watching the show have read the book or haven't, and I don't want to spoil anything for anyone with more self control than I have. So it would mean a great deal to me if we all could be cool about refraining from a lot of spoilers in the comments. Cool? Cool.

The first notable thing about the show is how beautiful it looks. This isn't really a surprise, as making bizarre and disturbing things look unsettlingly beautiful was kind of the entire reason that Hannibal existed, and nobody's better than Fuller at pulling that sort of thing off. The opening 'coming to America' scene with the Vikings is in equal measures incredibly funny, horrifying, and gorier than I would have expected them to get away with. Consider specifically the dismembered arm, still holding its sword, flying through the air and landing in the throat of the other Viking. Slapstick shouldn't work when there's that much viscera on screen, but it does here. And the loving care with which Fuller and co present scarlet and crimson blood as a three dimensional object moving through space is possibly the sign of something severely unhealthy in his emotional makeup. Honestly, it's just gorgeous.

Honestly, the opening sequence with the Vikings sets up the tone of the show absolutely perfectly.

I swear, it's pretty in context.

Contrasted with this, the final sequence of Shadow's attempted lynching, and the slaughter of his assailants, whoever they were, by the person saving Shadow, whoever they were, is equally beautiful. If that's not an inappropriate word for the subject matter being shown. The deep midnight blue of the night, contrasted with the rich reds of the blood. Seriously, there are food commercials that haven't put in this much work to make what they're filming looks good.

And on the subject, so many hats off to the show for not shying away from the lynching. The basic setup of the show, as we get very lightly sketched in in the first episode, is that the old gods that were brought to the US by the people who came here and gradually forgotten are gearing up for a war with the new gods that replaced them. The Gods who represented things that modern Americans worship now. Gods like Technology, and television, and money and guns. We see what appears to be the God of Technology here, and he's an obnoxious, vaping jackass of a kid. Seems about right. We don't see anything about television here, but it was well advertised beforehand that Gillian Anderson would be appearing as Media. Money and guns are my own observation about 'things Americans worship.' So, that said, it was a brave decision to embrace the imagery of lynching, in a show focusing on the 'spirit(s) of America', it's brave of them to not shy away from the ugly parts.

The general upshot of the story is that our protagonist, a man by the name of Shadow Moon, is released from prison a few days earlier than he was supposed to be when his wife and his best friend are killed in a car accident together. On his way home to the funeral he encounters a strange man who identifies himself as Mr. Wednesday, who's played by the always-charming Ian McShane, who offers him a job as his driver and man-Friday. Along the way this week Shadow also meets Mad Sweeney, a surprisingly tall leprechaun played by the criminally underrated Pablo Schreiber, previously best known as 'Pornstache' on Orange is the New Black.

This, the opening episode of what is clearly going to be a long and involved multi-season multi-entangled story, presents us with a strong story hook in the form of Shadow, a few interesting mysteries in the form of Mr. Wednesday and Mad Sweeney, and a particularly graphic sex scene featuring a character named Bilquis, in which I saw more of character actor Joel Murray than I ever wanted to see. A very good first mile on what is clearly going to be a very long journey.




Quotes:

Wednesday: "I offer you the worm from my beak and you look at me like I f***ed your mom?"

Wednesday: "What should I call you if I was so inclined?"
Shadow: "Shadow Moon."
Wednesday: "Oh my boy, that is one outstandingly improbable name."

Wednesday: "Rigged games are the easiest to beat."

Shadow: "So how’d you do it?"
Sweeney: "With Panache."

Audrey: "I am trying to get my dignity back here!"

Bits and Pieces:

-- Shadow said that he'd read 813 books in prison. That's also the year the Vikings arrived in the opening sequence. It's also, as Shadow points out, a Fibonacci number. Good on him for enjoying math.

-- Ian McShane does gleeful decadence very well.

-- The concept that faith makes airplanes stay in the air is genuinely terrifying to me. I'm afraid of flying as it is.

-- I didn't get into her in the review, but Audrey is by far my favorite character so far. She's damaged beyond the ability to function, but not so far that she doesn't know she's non-functional. That's an interesting space for a character.

-- Fuller and Green, according to the stories, wanted Shadow to accept the BJ from Audrey on his wife's gravestone, on the theory that after three years in prison he'd be horny. Neil Gaiman responded that if they did that he'd commit suicide and leave a note that he'd killed himself specifically because they had done it. They decided to go a different way with it. Did I mention that the book has a lot of devoted fans?

-- Language as an operating system for religion. Wittgenstein would have loved that.

-- I would totally hang out at that crocodile bar.

A great first episode, with lots of promise for what's to come.

Four out of five flying Viking arms.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, volunteer firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla.

3 comments:

Logan Cox said...

In fairness to Michael Green, he also co-wrote Logan and Blade Runner: 2049. And wouldn't be the first writer to be attached to a sub-par movie; not that I ever saw Green Lantern.

I'd like to watch the show, but want to finish the book first. Although, I can tell from the trailers that the casting for Shadow and Mr. Wednesday is quite good. And Bryan Fuller is exactly the kind of creator who should be at the helm of this kind of story.

magritte said...

I'm really looking forward to your take on the show. I agree that the pilot was beautifully shot and daring. A very striking and stylish opening to the show.

Mikey Heinrich said...

Logan, you're absolutely right. I went with the cheap joke at Mr. Green's expense. Sadly, I probably would do the exact same thing again, as I'm kind of a sucker for the cheap joke.

That said, the actual legitimate criticisms of Green Lantern had very little to do with the scripting stage, particularly as the final cut had clearly been hacked to pieces and recompiled in the editing room. I'd actually really like to read his original draft, I bet it was great.

Green Lantern has always been one of my favorite superheroes, in the interest of full disclosure. :)

Ricky Whittle as Shadow was an inspired casting choice. He's just knocked every single second out of the park. (As has Ian McShane, but then we all knew that was going to be the case.)

Ah... Bryan Fuller... I have some bad news for you about season two...

Magritte - brief sneak preview - A murder of Gods and A Prayer for Mad Sweeney are two of the best hours of television ever made, in my opinion. I'll expand on that in the coming weeks - I'm trying to time these so they flow seamlessly into season two's coverage :)