The biggest attraction of this year’s “episodic” part of the SXSW film component was pretty clear to me from the start. You can give or take The Son or the chance to see a preview of Preacher season two, but there was only one true must-see: The premiere episode of the Bryan Fuller-produced adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, airing next month (April 30) on Starz. I first read it in high school, and it’s a pretty important book for me, as it is for a lot of people, so I’m very glad to report that it’s dope and absolutely worthy of attention this summer.
American Gods tells the story of Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), a convict doing time for assault who’s endured through his sentence with the promise of seeing his wife again once it’s all over. Five days before his sentence ends, the Warden tells him that his wife’s been killed in a car accident and that he’s free to go. On his plane back, he meets a mysterious man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), and who seems to know quite a lot about Shadow and his circumstances though they’ve never met before. He offers Shadow a job as his chauffeur and bodyguard, and the two of them embark on a journey across the U.S. in the middle of a conflict between old gods and the new.
Right off the bat, they nail the tone of the novel: Epic, sometimes sarcastic and silly, but with a lurking violence around the corner waiting for you to put your guard down. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the series prologue, where a group of Vikings land in Canada years before Erik the Red and promptly get stranded on the beach due to unfriendly locals (a man is quite literally consumed by arrows) and a lack of wind for their sails. Everything promptly goes to hell, and they try to attract Odin’s attention through a number of means, including gouging out their left eyes, before finally deciding to massacre each other. It’s bloody as hell, and also incredibly funny in a hyper-morbid sense. In short, it’s a perfect introduction to both the show and the book’s interludes, which they’ve preserved here.
We didn’t get a good glimpse at many of the other actors in the cast (Crispin Glover fans are bound to be disappointed early on), though the ones we do see are a lot of fun — Pablo Schneider’s stereotype-defying leprechaun is an early standout — but the pilot really takes its time to get the viewer acquainted with both Wednesday and Shadow. Frankly I don’t think too many people will be upset with that choice, given how solid and fun McShane and Whittle are as a duo; they have an easy rapport, and it also helps that McShane fucking rules as Wednesday. His is a particularly beautiful sleaziness, and any show that can harness that aura (and coax him from his paycheck-induced slumber) has a better than average chance at being truly memorable television.
There’s gonna be a segment of critics who say “Well, of course it’s great, it’s a Bryan Fuller production,” and those people aren’t wrong. His track record is nearly as spotless as they come, given that he’s responsible for so many brilliant shows that had trouble landing an audience (Pushing Daisies, Hannibal) and for improving his already steady shows close to perfection. I think this might actually be his hit; he’s got a built-in fan base of Gaiman fans and people who know his work, and he’s working for a pay cable outlet that doesn’t have to rake in tens of millions of viewers every week and needs the crossover hit to rival Game of Thrones. And contrary to every sad Star Trek fan’s opinion, this is a show worth leaving Discovery for. It’s going to be really interesting to see how this develops over the course of a few seasons, and if the pains of adaptation begin to wreak havoc on the show’s future plans.
For now, though, this is one hell of a start.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus and use #VanyaSXSW for all Vanyaland’s ongoing coverage at South-By-Southwest 2017.