Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Review - 'American Gods', S01E01 - 'The Bone Orchard'

While it has been many years since I last read American Gods, I would still have to place it high up on my personal list of favourite novels – just as Neil Gaiman is high up my list of favourite authors.

It's worth pointing that out right at the start, if only to make it clear where I stand with regard to the novel being adapted into a series. Since it was first announced, the idea of an American Gods series has been a source of both concern and anticipation, for me. The opportunity to see this story play out in live-action certainly had its appeal – but, at the same time, I still found myself concerned that the bizarre events of the novel might not translate very well, or that the adaptation, itself, just might not turn out to be very good.

On both counts, though, this first episode managed to do great job of easing any concerns that I may have had. Most impressively, it managed to do so in the straight-forward manner possible – simply by fully embracing the outlandish premise of the story right from its opening moments.

That whole opening sequence, depicting the crew of a Viking longship who find themselves stranded on the shores of what would, one day, become the United States of America, really was the perfect way to start the series. As the first of what is clearly intended to be a recurring series of vignettes, placed around the central story-line, was very important in establishing both the tone, and general theme, of the series. Not only was it an incredibly violent sequence, as these Vikings find themselves driven to offer up increasingly bloody sacrifices in the hope of attracting the attention of their gods, but it also provided the perfect introduction to the whole idea of Old Gods being brought to America by their worshippers. For someone new to the story, it might feel very out-of-place, and very unconnected to everything that happens throughout the rest of the episode – but, it is also an extremely important moment for the series.

Similarly, the second vignette, in which we see the goddess Bilquis (Yetide Badacki) demand a sacrifice of her own from a devoted worshipper, is obviously intended to reinforce that central idea. Much like with the original novel, those little side-stories are clearly intended as a form of 'world-building' – as they explore the ways in which the gods and goddesses of older mythologies made their way to America, and how they survive now that they are here. That is, after all, the central premise of the entire story – so, it

Personally, I also found it very interesting that the series would take what had been the strangest, and most memorable, moment from the novel and place it right up front, in the very first episode. Much like in the book, Bilquis's introduction is strange, surreal, and a little unsettling – and, it is very obviously intended as a bit of a challenge for the viewer. Even more than the violence that opens the episode, it is probably this moment where the series might lose some viewers unfamiliar with the original book – something which is both understandable, and also a bit of a shame.

But, of course, I feel like I'm getting ahead of myself, here. While these two, seemingly unrelated, sequences were each well-shot, and incredibly well-performed, they were meant primarily to provide an introduction to the broader world of American Gods – and, to provide support for the main plot-thread of the series. Here, we meet a man named Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), recently released from prison after the tragic death of his wife, Laura (Emily Browning).

While travelling home to attend his wife's funeral, Shadow crosses paths with a eccentric gentleman who insists on calling himself Mr Wednesday (Ian McShane) – a crude, though charismatic, con-man who almost immediately attempts to hire Shadow as his body-guard. While he is initially, and understandable, very reluctant to accept this offer, Shadow ultimately accepts Wednesday's offer – and, as a direct result, almost immediately finds himself drawn into the incredibly strange world of ancient gods, and their war with the New Gods.

But, of course, none of that is clearly spelt out – either for Shadow, or the audience. There is definitely a strong sense of this first episode striving to toss audience into the deep end, alongside Shadow as he almost immediately finds himself in over his head. First, there is his encounter with Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), a man claiming to be a leprechaun drawn straight out of Irish folklore – then, there is his encounter with the strange, and very sinister, Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), one of the New Gods of America.

Someone who has already read to book would already have a clear idea of what is going on, of course- but, I can't help but wonder exactly what sort of an impression all of this would make on someone that is new to the story. Hopefully, though, that might actually prove to be part of the series charm for new-comers – because, as wilfully strange as it all is, American Gods is also already shaping up to be an incredibly entertaining series.

This first episode of American Gods features some fantastic performances from its cast (Ian McShane might seem already set to become the true stand-out – but, the rest of the cast are also very impressive) – particularly with the very interesting dynamic that is established between Wednesday and Shadow, with Ian McShane and Ricky Whittle playing very well off of each other throughout the episode.

The episode also features some great, visually impressive, sequences as it works to draw the audience in to its strange world. Bilquis's introduction is set to become the most memorable, obviously – but, it is closely followed by both the opening sequence and Technical Boy's introduction.

While the series doesn't seem to be in much of a hurry to reveal any of its mysteries, there should still hopefully be enough here to keep the audience interested. Because, as someone who already knows where the story is headed (unless they have made changes for the adaptation, of course), I can honestly say that there is a lot more to come.

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