The new television show American Gods hinges on the notion that divine beings walk among us. These old deities, who were worshiped by ancient world cultures, are always there in the periphery. If humans could just attune our vision, we’d be able to see them. A more perceptive vision, though, at least when it concerns the gods, requires more than just our eyes.
In the America that the show presents, citizens give their time to new gods. One such new god, Media, played brilliantly by Gillian Anderson, sums it up when, in episode 2, she appears in the likeness of Lucille Ricardo from I Love Lucy: “The screen’s the altar, I’m the one they sacrifice to. Then to now, golden age to golden age. They sit side by side, ignore each other and give it up to me…. Time and attention, better than lamb’s blood.”
Based on Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel of the same name, American Gods, which just finished its first season on Starz, is layered with heavy subjects and symbolism, and is hugely ambitious. It’s a story about immigration, assimilation, and the march to modernity. The show dives deeper into the novel’s source material—a suite of gods and mythical deities including Anansi the Spider, the storyteller and trickster of Ashanti folklore; Odin, the Norse god of wisdom and war; and Thoth, the ancient Egyptian scribe of the gods—by giving detail to moments and characters touched on only briefly in the book. The show’s creators, Bryan Fuller (who also made NBC’s Hannibal) and Michael Green (who wrote the latest X-Men installment, Logan), have put together a show with sensuous cinematography, full, tight shots, and bold colors, plunging the viewer even further into the world of gods and magic.
Each episode in the first season (it’s already been renewed for a second) takes on a different timely topic, spanning racism, gun control, immigration, online dating, and sexism. There hardly seems to be an issue too polarizing for American Gods to take on. Underneath all of the hot-button topics, however, there’s one question that carries the entire season: What is belief?
On Sunday’s season finale, that question reaches a climax in the form of a war between the old gods and the new gods over who will retain the attention and worshiping of fickle humans. But before that, we’re introduced to all of these deities from the perspective of one human caught in the middle: Shadow (Ricky Whittle), a stoic and understated widower who, at times, is too naive for his own good. Recently released from prison, Shadow becomes the bodyguard and accomplice to Mr. Wednesday, a con artist based on Odin, and they take to the road to enlist other old gods in the oncoming battle. In the book, Shadow is the primary character; in the show, however, he plays the more secondary role of introducing us to the various gods. At times, the ambition of American Gods leads to overwhelming exposition and introductions, pushing Shadow into the background. Additionally, Whittle sometimes struggles to standout in his role while playing alongside more veteran screen talents like Anderson and Ian McShane, who plays Mr. Wednesday.