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The first half of ‘American Gods’ really is divine

In a world where screens are everywhere you look, Wi-Fi is ubiquitous, and celebrities are made every second, is there any room left for ancient gods?

This is (essentially) the question posed by Neil Gaiman’s award-winning, 2001 fantasy novel American Gods, the inspiration for the upcoming Starz television series of the same name. Developed by Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies, Hannibal) and Michael Green (Heroes, Green Lantern), with Gaiman himself onboard as an executive producer, the series attempts to translate the story’s surreal tale — which is no easy undertaking.

The basic plotline sees an ex-convict recruited by a mysterious stranger for a road trip that puts them at the center of an impending war between the deities of old and the modern gods of media and technology. And for those unfamiliar, when we say “gods,” we mean that quite literally.

First announced in 2011, the television adaptation of American Gods went through some growing pains before settling at Starz with its current creative team. The series is now set to premiere April 30 with an eight-episode first season. And from what we’ve seen so far, this series could be big.

Digital Trends received an early look at the first four episodes of the series, and we’ve worked up this spoiler-free appraisal of the first half of the debut season, as well as some hints about what fans can expect when American Gods makes the leap from page to screen.

God-level casting

One of the tricky elements of adapting a popular novel is finding actors who best convey – both visually and in their performance – fans’ mental image of the characters. Adaptation projects often have to strike a delicate balance between these visual cues and what an actor brings to the screen in order to avoid alienating the source material’s existing fanbase – the group likely to be the first in line to see it.

It’s in this aspect of the project that American Gods really shines.

The cast is led by Ricky Whittle (Hollyoaks) as Shadow Moon, the former convict at the heart of the story, and Ian McShane (Deadwood) as the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday. Both actors deliver compelling performances in the show’s first four episodes that not only hold the audience’s attention, but showcase an impressive amount of chemistry between two actors in very different places in their respective careers.

It’s in the incredible casting that American Gods really shines.

A relative unknown in Hollywood, Whittle has a nice grasp on when to pull you in and when to let his co-stars make magic (sometimes literally). Meanwhile, McShane’s portrayal of Mr. Wednesday just might be the most perfect match of an actor to an established literary character we’ve seen in years. The role plays to everything he does best as an actor, while affording him just the right amount of flexibility to make it his own.

Similarly well cast are veteran actors Peter Stormare and Cloris Leachman, who play Czernobog and Zorya Vechernyaya, respectively. The two acclaimed actors play supporting roles in those first four episodes, but both make the sort of investment in the characters that makes them feel like featured parts. Orange is the New Black actor Pablo Schreiber also holds his own among the series’ heavy hitters as the drunken leprechaun Mad Sweeney, while memorable – but brief – contributions by Gillian Anderson and Orlando Jones remind you how entertaining both actors can be in the right roles.

Making the surreal, real

Gaiman’s original novel maintains an organic sense of fantasy throughout Shadow and Mr. Wednesday’s cross-country journey, blending the familiar conventions of reality with a magical undercurrent that finds just the right balance. It’s the sort of subtle fantasy that the award-winning author does so well, but it also makes his work an immense challenge to bring to the screen.

American Gods showrunners Fuller and Green do a surprisingly good job of translating that surreal atmosphere in the series’ first half by letting the story unfold through Shadow’s perspective. There are a few scenes that indulge the weirder aspects of the story a little more than we’d like, feeling like blunt reminders that all is not what it seems for Shadow. For the most part, though, the occasional departure into full-on fantasy feels natural, and feeds into the overall tone instead of distracting from it.

Between the lines

One aspect of the American Gods series that diverges from the source material a bit is in the show’s efforts to provide explanation and back story for characters that were left considerably more vague in Gaiman’s book. It will be interesting to see whether this change serves the story better for audiences unfamiliar with the source material as  it reads between the lines of the novel rather heavily.

Laura Moon (Emily Browning), for example, receives almost an entire episode of prologue material. The episode develops her character – and more importantly, the circumstances before, during, and after her death (an event described in the show’s synopsis, so no spoilers there) – with far more detail than she was given in the book.

Whether this plays well with fans of the original story who were given the freedom to craft their own impressions of her (like so many of the other characters in Gaiman’s story) remains to be seen, but it will likely lead to some strong opinions. Still, it’s done in a way that makes sense for an extended television series looking to showcase its impressive, talented cast. And frankly, you’re never going to please everyone in a case like this.

A very strong start

If the first four episodes of American Gods are a good indication of what the rest of the series holds, viewers are in for a very special treat. The casting, pacing, and creative decisions made by the series’ showrunners all combine to form a fascinating, unique television experience that carries you along for Shadow’s journey – and so far, it’s one heck of a good road trip.

American Gods premieres April 30 on Starz.