[WARNING: The following review does contain spoilers for the novel American Gods as well as the first episode of the TV series American Gods.]
Released from prison a few days early after his wife Laura’s untimely death, Shadow Moon reentered the world to discover that all the good things that were waiting for him had been scattered to the four winds. Not only was his wife dead but so was the best friend who was going to give Shadow a job. To add insult to injury, Shadow discovered that the two had been having an affair together and died in a car accident while she was in the middle of an ill-advised act of passion.
Curiously, a gentleman Shadow met on the plane ride home seemed to know all about his problems and was ready to offer him a job. As soon as Shadow was done attending Laura’s funeral and taking care of the associated business, of course. Mr. Wednesday is nothing but sympathetic when it comes to matters of family and death.
Somehow, working for Mr. Wednesday seems to have made Shadow’s life even stranger. Not yet in Wednesday’s employ for a day and Shadow has already met a seven-foot tall man who claims to be a leprechaun who could pull gold coins out of thin air. Then he got lynched by the faceless associates of a toad-vaping, limo-riding geek who spoke about rewriting reality and Wednesday being an old paradigm. Now Lucille Ball (sorry Lucille Ricardo) is talking him through the TV, offering him whatever he wants if he’ll work for her instead of Mr. Wednesday. And the only thing Shadow is sure of is that things are going to get a whole hell of a lot stranger still.
The second episode of American Gods continues its leisurely adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s classic novel. For those keeping score, this episode largely corresponds to the third and fourth chapters of the book, with one later sequence differing only in location transposed largely intact from later in the story. Gaiman’s original dialogue also remains unchanged
Opinion is already divided, as it always is, among the book-reading purists as to how efficient and necessary the changes are. Thankfully, the changes to American Gods from its source material are ones of addition rather than omission. That which works remains. That which slows the story – such as conversations that would consist of five minutes of people sitting down and talking – is reworked into something more cinematic.
The chief example of this is a scene in which Shadow cleans his former home – a task he left to the mother-in-law who hated his guts in the original book. With wordless actions, Ricky Whittle shows us more about Shadow Moon’s character than mere conversation ever could. Another effective change is Shadow’s conversation with the goddess, Media, played by Gillian Anderson doing a frighteningly good Lucille Ball impression. Previously the two talked in a hotel room. Now, Media reaches out to Shadow while he’s walking past the TV sets in a Walmart-style superstore. What better place of power for a goddess who encourages mindless consumerism?
Unfortunately, not all of the new material hits its mark so efficiently. A scene involving Bilquis – the love goddess we saw in the first episode – seemingly serves no purpose other than taking advantage of the fact that this is a Starz! Original Series and thus we can get away with a modicum of sex and full frontal nudity.
By contrast, the opening sequence – a Coming To America tale involving the African trickster god Anansi inspiring a revolt on a Dutch slaving vessel – perfectly captures the spirit of Gaiman’s story and Orlando Jones delivers a commanding performance as “Mr. Nancy”. I don’t think those fans hoping for an eventual Anansi Boys spin-off will be at all displeased by what they see here.
This second episode of American Gods is a step-down from the first but it is still a brilliant adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s work. Its only flaw is that it goes overboard trying to prove how serious and adult it is, not trusting the dialogue to prove the maturity of its concept. Still, the show is well cast, the effects work is eye-catching and the dialogue is brilliantly written. Like Czernobog swinging his hammer, American Gods still hits far more than it misses.