American Gods was the biggest and most exciting hit of this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. If you’re not a huge reader (the novel is well over 600 pages), we’ve been reassured that the show will stand on its own in addition to containing surprises and treats for fans of the book. If you haven’t seen the new trailer yet, take a look here:
Warning: minor spoilers
Trigger warning: for those unfamiliar with American Gods, it has some disturbing material. The story covers everything from religion to fatal oral sex to rape to a woman consuming a man with her vagina to eating human organs to murder. If any of that triggers you, it’s best to stop reading now.
The trailer introduces us to Shadow Moon (played by the ineffable Ricky Whittle) who is about to be released from prison. All Shadow wants to do is finish serving his time, go home to his wife whom he loves dearly, take a bath, and stay out of trouble. Then, bam! His wife (Emily Browning) dies in a car accident because she was giving a blowjob to his best friend (Dane Cook) while he was driving, killing them both instantly. Shadow has no wife, no job, no friends, and no ties.
Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) stalks Shadow and keeps hassling him to be his bodyguard. Shadow finally agrees on a coin toss because he has nothing better to do. Mr. Wednesday is an incarnation of Odin. He is organizing all the “old gods” of religion and culture in a war to fight against the “new gods” of technology and society. Shadow goes along for the ride as he joins Wednesday on his travels around America. He meets with other gods and has strange encounters, passing it all off with a shrug of indifference and polite acceptance.
The Creative Minds Behind American Gods
STARZ’s American Gods is a series developed by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green and is based on the novel of the same name by best-selling author, Neil Gaiman. They participated in the American Gods panel at San Diego Comic-Con and this week’s TCA panel, sharing more on how they have adapted the novel into a series and what’s in store for Shadow.
Known for creating surrealistic landscapes and opposing worlds on alternate planes of existence, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is no different. Coraline, MirrorMask, and the Doctor Who episode, “The Doctor’s Wife,” are perhaps some of the most well-known of Gaiman’s adaptations.
He has enthusiastically engaged with Fuller and Green on the American Gods adaptation, giving input on casting decisions and sharing tidbits that didn’t make it into the novel. Gaiman states it’s more and more likely he will be writing a sequel and has also been providing them with hints about what he has planned next for Shadow.
With a genius like Bryan Fuller at the helm, there’s no doubt Neil Gaiman’s world of nearly-forgotten gods and goddess will be treated with proper respect and appreciation. Fuller’s work includes oddball dramas like Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies, and Hannibal.
It was Hannibal that showed how well Fuller can transform source material into something new yet still uncannily familiar. Fuller brings with him another Hannibal alumni, David Slade, who will produce and direct several episodes of American Gods.
Rounding out the dream team is Michael Green. He is best known for writing and co-producing Heroes (where he and Fuller first met) and Green Lantern. Green describes their daunting task of translating Gaiman’s surrealism and quirky darkness from the page to the screen as “trying to make the fantastical real.” With what we’ve seen from the trailer, we’re in for another visually hypnotizing masterpiece.
The Phenomenal Cast and Characters
Warning: major spoilers for the book and series below
Fuller calls his adaptations “fanfiction of the source.” He lovingly pays homage to the original text while exploring the subtext, turning it into an evocative thought-piece. This approach will allow the story of American Gods to open up so it’s not told entirely from Shadow’s perspective, giving other characters the opportunity to share their adventures.
The story will be much larger, as well. The 10-episode first season is expected to cover only the first third of the book up to and including the House on the Rock scene. They even had to custom-build the wolf carousel because it was the only one that did not originally exist. Assuming the season starts with Shadow in prison, it would be a particularly symbolic literary motif to end the season in the same manner, with Shadow locked up by the Spooks.
Much to the relief of an audience exhausted by Hollywood whitewashing, Gaiman insisted on keeping the same racial make-up of the characters in the book. There was nothing but absolute agreement from Fuller and Green, “because that is how it should be.” This mindful consideration is especially necessary as many of these characters hold religious significance. The racial diversity isn’t just staying true to the characters in the American Gods novel but also to the gods themselves.
“The funny thing is, we’re not colorblind casting, we’re actually very consciously aware of color in the cast and ethnic specificity, because the book is so culturally specific. There have been times where a character has been described as having very dark skin, and we make a suggestion to Neil, like, ‘Oh, that actor is black — the character needs to be Indian even though it’s written that they have very dark skin, the character is absolutely Indian and needs to be an Indian actor.’ That’s been kind of a great relief because it’s a map that we just stick to.” – Bryan Fuller, TCAs 2016
The novel is just as much an odd-couple road trip across America as it is a journey through Shadow’s depression. Days before Shadow’s release from prison, his wife’s untimely death leaves Shadow in a state of interrupted grief after discovering she was not only unfaithful in her final moments but has also returned from the grave.
Ricky Whittle (the immortal Lincoln from The 100) sent in 16 audition tapes before being cast as Shadow Moon. Not only does Whittle look the part but his previous roles show he has that delicate balance between stoicism and sensitivity down to an art-form.
Shadow is a highly intelligent yet chill guy. He is witty and well-read and is possibly one of the most well-crafted and relatable characters of all time. At one point, he helps Wednesday rob a bank without batting an eye. Yet, later on, he feels guilty for climbing onto a museum piece. His only fault is that he is more bothered by Mr. Wednesday short-changing a cashier than he is by Wednesday casting spells to force women to have sex with him, including Shadow’s own mother! Gods raping people is common enough in mythology but Shadow was raised in our time and place, and that is not the type of behavior anyone should turn a blind eye to.
Emily Browning plays Shadow’s wife, Laura. According to Fuller, Laura’s role has been expanded significantly, including a “pilot” episode from her perspective. Shadow is adorably in love with her to his own detriment, even going to prison for her, and he can’t wait to come home to her before finding out about her death and infidelity. She might not have been a faithful wife, but after her death, she makes up for it in her own way. She looks out for Shadow and effortlessly takes out the Spooks and the New Gods who threaten him.
Laura is a very polarizing character. On the one hand, she visited Shadow in prison whenever she could and even bought him a transferable plane ticket for his impending release. On the other hand, Shadow was the getaway driver for a bank robbery she asked him to participate in and because she told him to, he beat up their two partners who tried to cut them out. Shadow was arrested and imprisoned for the assault while Laura kept the money. Along with enjoying the spoils of the bank robbery, she was also enjoying Shadow’s best friend, Robbie, and it was due to this relationship that they both ended up dead.
With the casting of Dane Cook as the “entertaining dick” Robbie Burton, this may mean we’ll get to see an alive Robbie and more of Laura’s life while Shadow was away in prison. According to Laura, Robbie had mirrors set up in the bedroom because he liked to watch himself having sex with his best friend’s wife. This mentality brings into question why exactly he was so willing to hold a job at his gym for Shadow after he gets out of prison.
On the casting of Cook, Fuller says, “he’s really very savvy as an artist and understands the perception of his brand and how to subvert it with this role in the show.”
You Are What You Worship
American Gods is a story “about the gods that weren’t doing nearly as well,” Green says. “It’s about forgotten imps and jinns and promises and things prayed to quietly.”
“When people just say ‘religion,’ everyone assumes the next step is to be divisive — and one of the things that makes American Gods such a loved and lasting piece of literature is that it manages to discuss religion in an inclusive way that invites all. Whether you’re coming at it faithfully, whether you’re coming at it agnostically, whether you have an academic background [in] mythology — it really awards varied attentions.” – Michael Green, TCAs 2016
The indomitable Ian McShane brings his acting chops to Mr. Wednesday, a blustery blowhard with rambling monologues who spends more time begging the question than answering it. McShane describes his portrayal of Wednesday as “a small-time but elegant grifter.”
Wednesday is also a bit of a prick with dubious morals. There is a potentially hefty message in how they tackle Wednesday’s penchant for non-consensual sex with questionably aged girls. This can also give the story a chance to further explore Shadow’s mother, providing perspective of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of Mr. Wednesday’s “charm.” They might have side-stepped the matter entirely, however, as McShane has hinted at a possible romance between Wednesday and the more age-appropriate (and seemingly willing) Zorya Vechernyaya.
Czernobog and the Zorya Sisters
Zorya Vechernyaya (Cloris Leachman) and her two sisters, Zorya Utrennyaya and Zorya Polunochnaya (who gives Shadow the all-important 1922 silver Liberty dollar), live in Chicago with Czernobog (Peter Stormare). Czernobog is another god Wednesday is trying to recruit for his war against the New Gods.
Shadow enters a dangerous wager with Czernobog over the outcome of a checkers match with Shadow losing one game but winning the other. Czernobog must join Wednesday in his campaign against the New Gods. After it is over, however, Czernobog will be allowed one hit on Shadow’s head with the hammer he used for killing cows before slaughter when he was younger (and stronger).
Pablo Schreiber (best known as Pornstache from Orange is the New Black) takes on the role of Mad Sweeney. The character is a combative, down-on-his-luck, 6’5″ leprechaun who makes the mistake of giving Shadow the wrong gold coin. This is the coin that brings Laura back from the grave, setting Mad Sweeney off on a journey chasing Laura to try to get it back. On top of being a brawler, Mad Sweeney is also an addict. This eventually leads to his death after Shadow gives him $20 for a “ticket out of this place.”
Gaiman revealed at SDCC that he had about 4,000 years of Mad Sweeney’s life written. His background ended up cut from the novel, but there’s plenty of room for it in the series. Even though Mad Sweeney meets a less than dignified end in the novel, it doesn’t mean he’s gone for good. After all, he did return for his own wake.
Gaiman also teased that in addition to the Mad Sweeney history, he has the idea for a “Somewhere in America” story set in a Japanese internment camp with Fuller asking if he can use it for next season. The “Somewhere in America” and the “Coming to America” sections of the novel explore tales of immigrants bringing their gods to America and how they’ve evolved, survived, and in some very few places, flourished. The series plans to expand on these characters, using them as “trampolines” for the larger story, starting with Bilquis, the Queen of Sheba.
The exquisitely charming and self-proclaimed geek, Yetide Badaki, portrays Bilquis and her man-swallowing vagina (which was nicknamed Joy on set). Badaki jokes on the timing of her casting as, “three years from becoming an American citizen to becoming an American god.”
In the novel, Bilquis is only in two short scenes. She is first introduced in a “Somewhere in America” segment as a present-day prostitute looking for johns to worship her so she can cannibalize them with her lady parts. Her second and last appearance has her meeting a gruesome demise at the hands of Technical Boy. Fuller states that the series will turn Bilquis into a “full, fleshed-out character with an arc that’s just as exciting as any of the other conversations.”
Other Old Gods
In another “Somewhere in America” story, the Jinn (Mousa Kraish) and Salim (Omid Abtahi) are ill-fated lovers in Manhattan. The two swap lives, leaving one of them dead under a fallen girder.
We’ll also be seeing more backstories and side stories of other gods. Orlando Jones, most recently underutilized on Sleepy Hollow, is superbly cast as Mr. Nancy. He has already brought applause on set from cast and crew alike for a story that speaks directly to our troubled times.
Demore Barnes and Chris Obi play the Egyptian gods, Mr. Ibis (Thoth) and Mr. Jacquel (Anubis), who run a funeral parlor together. In the novel, Mr. Ibis is the superfluous “author” of a few of the “Coming to America” stories while Mr. Jacquel is a prosector of the deceased and reverent organ-eater. Shadow doesn’t meet Ibis and Jacquel until after the House on the Rock, so it will be interesting to see how these two characters are deployed in the first season.
At the recent SDCC panel, Kristin Chenoweth was brought onstage to announce her role as Easter. Chenoweth is another Fuller alumni, having worked with him on Pushing Daisies. Easter is one of the few old gods who is doing better than most, but Chenoweth comments that she is still “very pissed that Jesus took her holiday.” According to recent casting rumors, she might even be referring to Mexican Jesus (Ernesto Reyes).
Just as Bilquis’ and Mad Sweeney’s roles have expanded, so too has Technical Boy’s as the “big bad” of the first season. As the embodiment of technology, everyone on the planet worships Technical Boy, from their computer screens to their smart cars to their Pokémon. Portrayed by the endearing Bruce Langley whose curls rival both Fuller’s and Gaiman’s, Technical Boy has evolved the most since the book’s release, just as technology has. In the novel, he’s a fat, acne-faced dweeb with a superiority complex. For the series, he’ll be getting an upgrade. We will never see the same version twice with his costumes as mercurial as the mutable technology he exemplifies.
Crispin Glover plays Mr. World, the ringleader of the new gods. Jonathan Tucker plays his old gods counterpart and Shadow’s former prison cellmate, Low Key Lyesmith. Mr. World/Low Key Lyesmith is an incarnation of the Norse god, Loki. Together with Mr. Wednesday, they plan the war between the gods so they may feast off its power.
Rounding out the new gods is Gillian Anderson fittingly portraying the god of Media. She is another Hannibal alumni with Fuller hinting that we might see more familiar faces next season. And yes, she will be asking Shadow that infamous question, “you ever wanted to see Lucy’s tits?” Fuller once again reassures us that if you love it in the book, it’s probably going to turn up on screen.