Our expectations for American Gods are at the “unwise” end of high, but it’s hard to temper your enthusiasm for a show based on Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece from the creative team behind Hannibal. Now that we’ve seen the first episode, we are so relieved to tell you that we have not been disappointed.
The European premiere screening began with a video from Neil Gaiman apologising for the blood, and the red stuff will be the first thing that hits you. The episode starts with Mr Ibis (Demore Barnes) writing the story of how Odin was brought to America, and it is a beautiful, brutal and surprisingly hilarious few minutes that really shows off the ambition and craftsmanship at play, as the Norsemen are forced to take drastic measures to get home. David Slade’s distinctive visual style (aided by cinematographer Jo Willems) is immediately apparent and you’ll be glued to the screen.
For fans of the book, the first episode doesn’t stray too far from the text, and ‘The Bone Orchard’ acts as an excellent introduction to this rich and complex world for newcomers. We see Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) released from prison early following the death of his wife Laura (Emily Browning), at which point he’s pursued by the charismatic, wily Mr Wednesday (Ian McShane), who wants Shadow to work for him. As Shadow heads home for Laura’s funeral, Wednesday keeps popping up, jostling and conniving until an agreement is finally reached.
There’s a lot crammed into this first hour but writers Bryan Fuller and Michael Green do an excellent job of streamlining, assisted by their perfect casting choices. Whittle’s Shadow is a man who’s lost his anchor, suddenly free and adrift in an unfriendly world packed with strange strangers. The only connection to his old life is Audrey (a stunning, ferocious turn from Betty Gilpin), the furiously bitter ex-wife of Robbie, Shadow’s best friend who was in an indelicate situation with Laura when both were killed. It’s a part that’s un-showy but quietly complex, a reserved good guy dealing with some very bad things, and Whittle shows an emotional depth and delivers a compelling leading turn, as well as nailing the big physical moments (that bar fight is brutal and fantastic).
Slade builds a wonderfully foreboding atmosphere; all heavy storm clouds, ominous dreams, violence, sweat and, as we mentioned, blood, which allows the gods to burst into their scenes fizzing with danger and mystery. McShane is as perfect a Wednesday as you’d imagine, getting some big laughs with his airport con but clearly hiding a lot under his genial exterior.
We’re also given Pablo Schreiber’s violent, electrifying six-foot-four leprechaun Mad Sweeney, Bruce Langley’s cruel, amphibian-smoking snot Technical Boy, but the show is stolen by Yetide Badaki’s imperious Bilquis, whose big scene from the book is fantastically brought to life by the crew and her brilliant performance. You will not forget the Bilquis scene, that is for sure.
It’s wonderful to see so many little details from Gaiman’s novel (the chilli at Jack’s Crocodile Bar, the airport wisdom, etc), but what’s more thrilling is the fact that the tone is exactly right. Fuller has blended pitch-black humour, heart and fantasy to great effect before, and this shows perfectly why he and Green were the perfect choice.
With so many characters still to meet, so much more of the world to explore, and the promise of much more Laura, Bilquis and Sweeney, we are delighted that our high expectations have been met, and they’re only getting higher. There’s the epic scope, the intimate soul, the danger, and the catalogue of fascinating, dazzling characters..this feels like the start of something special.
American Gods begins on Amazon Prime on 1 May.