The only honest review of Starz series American Gods is this: find some god, any god, and pray for the Sweet Meteor of Death to obliterate us before season two airs.
Start With a Clever Novel
Neil Gaiman's American Gods was recommended to me by a likable prosecutor in a murder case. I thought it was interesting with some very memorable parts. (The story gets put on extended hold somewhere near the middle, though - how does that happen at this level?) But the Bear is a sucker for Golden Age roadside attractions like Rock City. Also, the melancholy forgotten time capsule of Cairo, Illinois is a sort of second hometown for the Bear, and it is a setting. But the word "overrated" once again comes to mind, as it so often does when the Bear casts his jaundiced eye on post-Hayes Code culture.
What's it about?
Old gods are dying because nobody believes in them anymore. New gods are media and tech. If the old gods are willing to be re-branded for an atheist world, they can survive in style. The catch is, they won't be worshiped.
"Everyone Will be Talking About Showtime After This!"
Critics are raving over Starz prestige production of the book. As usual, the Bear thinks the critics are raving mad degenerates.
The executive summary is that American Gods just wallows in filth, making it too uncomfortable for any normal person to watch. The details are not important. The Bear bugged the meeting at Showtime, no, wait... Starz? Whatever. Here's a short transcript.
Starz Network Execs: Game of Thrones got buzz for sex and violence and violent sex and profanity. That's the ticket, but we ain't exactly HBO. So, we're goin' all the way to Hell. And listen: hit stuff like borders, guns and homosexuality hard.
Creative Team: Homo-freaking-what? You mean LGBT, right, you Nazi bastards who are paying for this?
Starz Network Execs: Uh, yeah, sorry, that's what we mean. The point is, you know what we mean. No critic will dare say anything against us out of fear of being called a Trump supporter. The main thing, though, people are going to remember the Showtime brand!
Creative Team: Showtime? We want to renegotiate our contract.
Starz Network Execs: Starz. Whatever. See the problem? YOU are the solution.
END OF TRANSCRIPT
If you took out every sentence with the F-word it would be a silent movie.
Sad, but it's a winning publicity formula today. In a weak Starz defense, the novel was not exactly edifying in parts, but there are some things you might read about with an acceptable kind of horror that you just do not want to ever see with your eyes. (Bilquis and don't ask.) It might be adapted for television with a careful touch, but here, much of what makes the novel interesting is ignored or buried in excrement.
So, writing a review of American Gods is like asking, "So, Mrs. Astor, other than that, how was the voyage?"
Where Story Doesn't Matter
The Breaking Bad network, AMC, had for its motto: "Story Matters Here." Starz is "Story? F*** That." Aside from anything else, American Gods is literally a television series without a story. Not even a make-it-up-as-you-go LOST story or quirky atmospheric Twin Peaks story.
This is some accomplishment for a series based, after all, on a novel.
Each episode, some stuff happens. A lot of the time the same characters are on screen doing the same sorts of stuff. Driving without getting anywhere; talking without ever getting to the point. Ian McShane plays the role he was born to play, which is the same role he always plays, come to think of it, so he's had a lot of practice. But none of the other characters are given a chance to gain much traction.
Sometimes, instead of no story, the writers give us some completely different story, although the Bear is sure they would tell him it's really sort of the same story if he were paying attention. Hey, writers. YOU HAD ONE JOB. TO MAKE ME PAY ATTENTION.
Writers: No, our job is to make sure everyone remembers the Showtime brand through wretched excess.
Bear: You mean Starz.
Writers: Whatever, NAZIBAR.
The general idea is that Ian McShane and his sidekick are going somewhere to do something important. But by the end of the first season, we haven't even made it to House on the Rock, let alone Rock City.
What's Done Relatively Well
|Easter Party Where Things Actually Make Sense and Stuff Happens|
This is not to say there are not parts that are done relatively well.
The season finale (Come to Jesus) with Kristen Chenowith as "Easter" (pagan Ostara, having sold out to Christianity for the whole eggs-and-bunny thing) has a recognizable plot and even makes sense. It is shot in dazzling small-screen Technicolor and drips with style. The menacing dance of glitch-replicating walking stick-and-tux faceless men resembles a tech-twisted vision of Fred Astaire's Top Hat, White Tie and Tails. (Fred does, after all, mow down the entire chorus line by using his stick as a gun.) New god Media (Gillian Anderson) is rocking Judy Garland's costume from Easter Parade.
It is as if everyone realized, "Maybe something could, you know, actually happen in the season finale. It would be even better if we could also explain something, since no one has a clue what's going on."
Too bad the whole "telling a story" concept wasn't discovered until the final episode.
That is the creative problem with American Gods in a nutshell. You could watch this episode by itself and not be at the slightest disadvantage compared to people who watched the whole season.
Of course, there are "Jesuses" from various cultures as the party's guests of honor. While not as blasphemous as you would expect (a low bar indeed) let's just say Starz isn't going to be pulling this joke on the Muslims.
When Ostara is confronted with how she's been co-opted by Christianity, a compassionate one-of-the-Jesuses (played by Jeremy Davis) mournfully says something like, "I'm so sorry," prompting Kristen Chenowith to flutter over to him, the perfect hostess who, behind her frozen smile, is starting to realize her big day is turning into a fiasco.
That is actually pretty funny and of a piece with the concept, not a gratuitous slap.
I Want My MTV Back
In other words, you should think of American Gods (if you must) not as a drama, like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, but early MTV. A series of unconnected segments of different styles and quality. It is occasionally stylish and engaging. Occasionally very clever. If it's sole purpose was not to put Starz on the cultural radar through a shock and awe devastation of good taste, there is talent enough behind it to make something less awful.
You can catch glimpses of it, but nothing more, even if you don't miss anything looking for your emesis basin.
When you used to watch MTV, for every Money for Nothing, there were a hundred Barbie Girls. But, even then, you didn't feel obligated to burn your house down around you every week.
Don't just skip it. American Gods requires nothing less than for humans to nuke their entire planet from orbit before season 2. It's the only way to be sure.