Skip to main content

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.

Editors' Recommendations

Rick Marshall
A veteran journalist with more than two decades of experience covering local and national news, arts and entertainment, and…
Dracula strikes in first trailer for The Last Voyage of the Demeter
Corey Hawkins and Liam Cunningham in The Last Voyage of the Demeter.

In retrospect, Universal Pictures may have made a mistake by releasing two Dracula-themed movies in the same year. While Renfield is coming out this week with a very comedic take on Dracula (and Nicolas Cage in that role), the upcoming horror flick The Last Voyage of the Demeter has a completely different tone. And if the first trailer is any indication, there are some genuine scares ahead.

The Last Voyage of the Demeter | Official Trailer

Read more
John Wick franchise travels to the 1970s in first trailer for spinoff series The Continental
A man stands outside a hotel on the poster for The Continental.

The John Wick franchise heads back to the 1970s to check in with the film's famous hotel in The Continental. Peacock released its first teaser trailer for the three-part event, set to arrive later this year.

The Continental follows a young Winston Scott (Ambulance's Colin Woodell) as he navigates life in 1970s New York. The series explores the familiar hotel that serves as a safe haven for assassins. The Continental will focus on Winston's background and how he ascended the ranks to become the owner of the hotel. The official synopsis: "Winston charts a deadly course through the hotel’s mysterious underworld in a harrowing attempt to seize the hotel where he will eventually take his future throne."

Read more
5 shocking revelations from the Netflix docuseries American Manhunt: The Boston Marathon Bombings
A reenactment image of a man standing in the middle of the street with a gun, smoke and police lights in front of him from American Manhunt.

The Boston Marathon is the oldest annual marathon in the world. It’s a time when the entire city and surrounding areas come together to cheer on and celebrate those who train for months (sometimes even longer) to run through the streets of Boston and enjoy a tremendous sense of accomplishment once they cross the finish line. But the Boston Marathon will now forever be associated with one fateful day in April 2013 when two bombs went off near the finish line. The bombs killed several individuals, injured many others, and caused mass mayhem.

Just before the 10-year anniversary of the events, the harrowing story is chronicled in the three-part series American Manhunt: The Boston Marathon Bombings, one of the latest additions to Netflix in April 2023. American Manhunt is as much a love letter to Boston and the residents who rallied together in a time of crisis as it is the retelling of the hunt and capture of two extremely dangerous, radical young men.

Read more