‘American Gods’ On Starz Is Alluring, Yet Disturbing

‘I’ On Culture

One of the more delicious secrets of the summer is the series American Gods on Starz. Its first season is short, only eight episodes. But they are filled with freakishly complex and surreal shots that make this like nothing else you have ever seen on television — at least, if you’ve never tried LSD.

Based on the blockbuster 2001 novel by Neil Gaiman, it is a fictional look at America by examining belief systems. There are many American gods brought here by all kinds of immigrants, and somehow they survive. For those wondering, Jehovah, God of Jews and Christians, is not present, although Jesus Christ does show up near the very end of the season.

The series depicts a battle between the Old Gods, led by Odin, against New Gods, such as technology, media and big business. Some of the images are quite disturbing; this is not a show for children. Events bounce around in a variety of ways. But it is difficult to look away.

Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) is released from prison a few days early because of the death of his wife Laura (Emily Browning). While traveling to the funeral, he meets Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), a con man. Actually, he is Odin. (The name is significant, since “Wednesday” is actually derived from “Odin’s Day.”) Shadow becomes his driver.

At the funeral, he finds out that Laura was actually in the process of betraying him with his best friend when the car went out of control. But a magic coin he got from a very tall leprechaun (Pablo Schreiber) that he tosses on her grave allows her to more or less live again.

We meet many different old gods. Czernobog (Peter Stormare), the Slavic god of darkness, hangs out with Zorya Vechernyaya (Cloris Leachman), the Evening Star. Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) is a fertility goddess. She takes the form of a prostitute who swallows her worshippers whole. This provides a great opportunity for some talented performers to do fairly short but memorable bits.

Watching Ibis (Demore Barnes) assisting Anubis (Chris Obi) weighing Laura Moon’s heart, and then allowing her to go on until she finished her quest, was remarkably powerful. In Egyptian mythology, if the heart is lighter than a feather based on life, you go to a happy afterlife. If not, you get nothingness.

The new gods, with Mr. World (Crispin Glover) in the lead, are very interesting. Mr. World represents big business and all the special connections going on. Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) is a techno freak who sends minions to lynch Moon, a horrifyingly powerful image. He is, naturally, young and callow. Media (Gillian Anderson) appears in the form of media stars such as David Bowie and Marilyn Monroe.

A battle is brewing and strange things are happening as the sides begin to gather. Bit by bit, we begin to get a picture, and then things change completely. That is part of the fun.

McShane is superb as Wednesday, wonderfully clever even when trying to be straight. Whittle is marvelously strong; he gives so little away that you always want more. Browning is wonderful as the wandering dead wife who seems obsessed with her husband, despite having cheated on him. Orlando Jones as Mr. Nancy (Anansi) gave a brilliant speech to Africans being shipped to slavery that caused a slave rebellion, another powerful scene. And there are many of those.

This is a complex series. Unless you have studied comparative religion, there will probably be many gods that are new to you. For those worried about the religious aspect, the original idea is that these gods exist because people believe in them. That is why the Goddess Media is so effective. People worship stars, and that builds her power. I would suggest not taking any of the ideas like that seriously.

This is a tough series to watch, and not for the faint of heart. It is the only series I have watched that makes Game of Thrones seem meek. There is a lot of blood and many disturbing images. My wife insists that we see it taped the next day, late in the afternoon, because it can create nightmares.

But it is, frankly, wildly different from anything you have probably ever seen on TV. Of course, being broadcast on Starz means it is not available to everyone, but it shows up on Amazon Video the next day. It is worth watching.