Grading the Gods: A Report Card for American Gods, Season One

So by now, chances are good that you have heard about American Gods on Starz. You’ve either watched or haven’t watched. If you haven’t watched, you’re either planning to, have no interest in it, or are on the fence. I’ve watched and enjoyed all that the first season had to offer. If you check through my archives here on SpecChic, this should come as no surprise. The series has contributed two of my favorite things in the last year, and it was my biggest anticipation for 2017. Having watched all eight episodes now, I can safely say that while the show did not entirely live up to all of my hopes and dreams, I was satisfied with what the show got right. No show is perfect, which means that there are some things that the series just didn’t manage to deliver on. Let’s address both sides of that coin.

Beware spoilers below.


1) Positive: The Expanded Role of Women

If you’ve read the novel upon which the series is based, then you’re already familiar with the story. It’s not a perfect book. One thing that’s lacking in the pages is a variety of well-rounded female characters. Women appear on the pages but they’re all rather flat. Happily, show runners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green have worked closely with Neil Gaiman to rectify this situation. While this is still largely a man’s world, the goddesses that walk here are positively luminous. Take, for example, Bilquis. Book-Bilquis spends her time away from the main storyline. Her story is designed to show the readers just how badly the old gods are faring in the so-called new world. She is reduced to common sex work and dies violently at the hands of new god, Technology. It’s a short, ugly story. In the series, however, Bilquis is a shadowy, layered, untrustworthy figure. We discover that she has been able to recover some of her power due to the assistance of Technical Boy (the TV iteration of Technology), who introduces the once Queen of Sheba to the wonders of Tinder. Later, he returns to cash in that favor. As the final episode rolls along, we find that Bilquis is traveling to the House on the Rock (once again, more on that later) to join Wednesday and the other gods that he’s been meeting with. However, we have no real idea whose side Bilquis is on. We’ve already learned that the old gods are corruptible via Vulcan’s storyline earlier in the season. I’m on pins and needles just waiting to see what they’re going to do with this character.

Ostara triumphant

Another example is found in Easter (portrayed by the always-charming Kristin Chenoweth, most memorably of Wicked, Pushing Daisies, and Glee, among many other roles). Once known as Ostara of the Dawn, Easter has somehow found a place in this new world. She has a lovely home and an army of rabbits at her beck and call to watch, listen, and carry messages for her. Her day was shamelessly stolen by Christianity (something she acknowledges by throwing a garden party for all of the many iterations of Jesus that roam around America…more on them later), but she succeeds. Easter is, once again, much more fleshed out on the screen than she was in the pages of Gaiman’s novel. Easter’s powers are addressed early in the final episode, when Mad Sweeney asks her to resurrect Laura Moon. Resurrection is something that Easter is typically able to accomplish. She tries but ultimately isn’t able to resurrect Laura due to the circumstances of her death (which I will not address, because I really don’t want to spoil that particular plot point). Later, after Wednesday sacrifices Technical Boy’s underlings, the Children (an updated version of the so-called spooks from the novel version, ie Mr. Town, Mr. Wood, etc), Easter is able to withdraw spring from the land, leaving it in a barren, wintery state. We don’t ever see even a glimpse of her abilities in the book. Watching Ostara rise again and flex her muscles was magnificently portrayed. This brings me to my next point.

2) Positive: The Visuals are Stunning

The Children, giving Fred Astaire a run for his money

Could you honestly expect anything less from this team? If you go pay attention to the cinematography throughout the show, you will notice that certain scenes are lit darker than others. Other scenes are saturated in color. This doesn’t even begin to take the scenes themselves into account. There are many standout moments. It’s a truly gorgeous show to watch. Even the terrible moments are hard to look away from. This shouldn’t be a surprise to watchers who are familiar with Fuller’s previous work, especially the much-acclaimed Hannibal. I’m trying to avoid too many spoilers, so I can’t properly name specific scenes, but there’s something memorable in every episode. It might be beautiful or terrible, but it’s always striking and unique. One of my favorite scenes happened in the final episode. The goddess Media (Gillian Anderson) shows up at Easter’s party (dressed as Judy Garland from Easter Parade, of course) with one of the Children on her arm. Her date starts to replicate and keeps going until we have a team of top-hatted Children tap-dancing in Easter’s garden.

Keep an eye out especially for the “Coming to America” segments. The stories have an entirely different feel to them.  In a story about gods and demigods, these particular scenes have their own dreamlike look, though sometimes those dreams are nightmares. Mr. Nancy’s introduction (wildly different from the book) was a particularly striking moment for the show (and gave it a widely popular catchphrase: “Angry gets shit done”).

3) Needs Work: Accessibility for Casual Viewers/Those Who Haven’t Read the Book

Mr. Jacquel’s introduction is confusing if you have no idea what you’re watching

If you decide to give this wacky new show about gods a try, and you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into, you’re going to have a big problem. The show has no sympathy for you if you haven’t been keeping up. A friend of mine heard Spouse and I waxing poetic on the show and decided to give it a try. Unfortunately, he’s not familiar with the story, and the show’s unforgiving nature meant that he was confused as all hell. He had the misfortune to start with “Head Full of Snow,” which is the third episode. The story’s well on its way by this point and if you’ve missed episodes one and two? Too bad for you. This was a show that was clearly meant for today’s binge-watching culture and does not lend itself well to the standard television format. It’s going to be difficult for new watchers to get drawn in. Granted, a certain sector of television viewers have evolved to be able to truly appreciate and understand the long-form nature of much of what’s on today. The casual, curious viewer still exists. In order for the show to succeed, a modicum of accessibility must be addressed in some way. If you’re interested in watching this show, you have to be invested. Sometimes literally, bringing us to…

4) Needs Work: Starz is Selfish

Angry gets shit done…unless you’re fighting a media conglomerate (Orlando Jones as Mr. Nancy)

Starz is incredibly protective of its original content. You absolutely cannot watch their shows unless you pay for them in some way, whether it be by standard cable/Dish/whatever or by purchasing a subscription to the channel via Amazon, iTunes or YouTube. You must pay for their content if you wish to watch it legally. There is zero streaming with the most widely used services (Hulu, Netflix). As of this writing (June 24, 2017), you cannot watch American Gods at all unless you’re doing so by traditional TV methods or by purchasing a subscription to the channel via Amazon Prime (which means you first need to be a Prime member, and then you must purchase a subscription to the Starz channel). You cannot yet purchase individual episodes at all. I don’t know what kind of deal Starz and Amazon have locked in with this particular property, but it’s positively draconian. You have to make more of an effort (a sacrifice, if you will) than most people are willing to put in unless they already know that they want to see this. I knew going in that I wanted to see what the series had to offer and had no problem subscribing to Starz for the duration of Season One. I’ll likely cancel it soon and reactivate next year when Season Two airs. This is detrimental to people who might be interested in watching the show but don’t want to commit. There is a one time trial period available if you’re already an Amazon Prime member. This still requires an investment. This trial is only for seven days. There are eight hours of American Gods available at the moment. It’s not bad, and you could get through it in that seven days if you really want to. That’s fine for now, but what happens next year? This means that viewers are left with two legal options: pay or wait until the show is available on DVD and then hope for a local library to get a copy. Given the available options here, the casual viewer’s going to skip it.

5) Needs Work: Pacing

A lovely, but unnecessarily long scene from Episode 3, “Head Full of Snow”

The show’s moving along at a rather slow pace. I expected this to a certain point. I understand that the creative team is doing this deliberately to make sure that every possible aspect is explored to the fullest potential. I can appreciate this. However, I’m also afraid that maybe they’re going too slow.

Furthermore, ending the season with a long shot on the signs for the House on the Rock don’t mean a damned thing if you’ve not read the book (bringing us back to point number 3). It’s more than anticlimactic; it’s boring. Why not end the show only a few moments earlier with Wednesday and Easter’s magnificent display of power and the outright declaration of war between the new and old gods? There are plenty of viewers ready for the long haul on a show like this one. Unfortunately, there are plenty more with shorter attention spans and hundreds of other shows to give their time to. If American Gods cannot correct its pacing issues, I’m not sure it’s going to survive. Television producers and networks can be incredibly harsh if viewership goes down. I very badly want this show to succeed.

6) Positive: The Changes from Book to Television Have Been Very Well Done

A few of the many incarnations of Jesus Christ

A small change from page to screen is the appearance of Jesus Christ. Jesus doesn’t truly appear in the novel in any memorable form.  Here, however, we have numerous versions of the Son of God walking around. It is implied that there is a Jesus for every denomination of Christianity that exists in America.  When I watched the scenes at Easter’s garden party and slowly realized that each guest was a different incarnation of Jesus, I was struck by the sheer number of them. It speaks strongly to the scattered and sometimes divisive nature of Christianity that there is a different Christ figure for each one of them.

I’ve already waxed poetic on Bilquis. Another good example is Technical Boy. In the book, which was published way back in 2001, computers, the Internet, and cell phones were nowhere near as prevalent as they are today. Technology of the novel is portrayed as a fat kid with bad skin, which was the stereotypical nerd of those days. Today’s “nerds” have practically become the cool kids. As a result the new version of Technical Boy is leaner, not unattractive, and much more sarcastically cruel than the book version (which was simply cruel). Technical Boy is practically an Internet troll come to life.

Another great example is Vulcan. This is an entirely new character, and I’m a bit disappointed that we won’t be seeing more of him. Vulcan shows what can happen if the old and new gods form an alliance. He has evolved from being an old Roman god of volcanoes and swords to being almost a new god by “franchising” his faith — he built a bullet factory. Every single one of the deaths that comes from one of his bullets serves as another sacrifice in his name. He was marvelously portrayed by Corbin Bernsen (who I suspect must have watched Terry O’Quinn’s turn as John Locke on Lost for inspiration — they even look alike!) and due to one thing and another, won’t be back (as far as I know…we are talking about gods here).

Even the changes that I haven’t been fond of are well done. Example: I sort of hate the expanded Laura Moon that we’re given in the series. Nevertheless, her character is extremely well done.  I could write entire essays on Laura’s complexities and portrayal, and what she is meant to stand for in the context of the show. Plus, her entire road trip with Mad Sweeney begs for its own comedic spin-off.

Sweeney and Laura’s Not Excellent Adventure

Final Grade: B+

There is a great deal more to the show that I won’t go into for the sake of not spoiling every single thing that has happened or been changed thus far. B+ isn’t a bad grade for a first season, but it needs to get stronger. The show runners obviously know what they’re doing, but they may want to consider making their program a little more accessible. I fear for its survival otherwise. The good news is that the team behind the show has nearly an entire year to look back at this short season and take note of what worked and what didn’t before Season Two arrives next year. This will allow them to learn and adapt. I’m not sure what’s coming in the next season, but I’m eagerly anticipating whatever comes next.

All images courtesy of Screencapped.net

6 Comments

  • Lane Robins June 29, 2017 at 2:34 pm

    They do make it hard to find. I loved the book, inordinately so, but … apparently not enough to shell out for a subscription to STARZ. But that’s me. I feel like there’s so much good stuff everywhere, that if you miss one, well, there are three others to take their place. Which is sad, because again, I loved the book, and I love Bryan Fuller, and want to support both things. Except…

    Reply
    • Casey Price June 29, 2017 at 2:37 pm

      Exactly! I fear this will hurt the show in the long run. Even HBO has/had a deal with Amazon Prime to stream their shows.

      Reply
      • Shara White June 29, 2017 at 8:08 pm

        Question on the HBO deal: didn’t that happen…. later? And now that it’s available, how soon are new seasons available on Prime? As the current season is airing? As soon as the current season is over? Or do you have to wait for the DVD to come out for Amazon Prime to have streaming rights?

        Reply
        • Casey Price June 29, 2017 at 8:17 pm

          I’m honestly not sure of the timeline. By the time we were interested in picking up anything HBO had to offer, we decided to subscribe to HBO Now, and it became a nonissue.

          Reply
        • Casey Price June 29, 2017 at 8:19 pm

          The problem is that nobody gets streaming rights to any of Starz shows without a subscription to the channel. I would watch Outlander, for example, but will lose that ability when we cancel Starz in another week or two.

          Reply
          • Shara White June 29, 2017 at 9:24 pm

            Wait, I thought Outlander was on Cinemax…. Hmmm…. another reason to subscribe…. Well, I’m behind on that show, though I do have the Season One BluRay….

            But to your point, yes, providing something via streaming, even if it’s when next season is airing, would be better than nothing.

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