AUSTIN, Texas—TV pilots ain’t what they used to be, as the Netflix model takes much of the weight off a first episode’s shoulders. Series can take their time revealing characters, unfolding plots, or even having much plot take place in a single episode.
Weirdly, the first hour-long episode of Starz’ new American Gods series feels like a relic of that older era—in all of the best ways. This is TV built to stun, with equal parts momentum and cautious pauses, and it won’t embarrass fans of its source material. The Neil Gaiman novel of the same name has no shortage of mystery, intrigue, and surprise in its first few dozen pages. Starz’ take on the book manages to follow its every major plot thread to a satisfying degree, all while setting into motion a solid framework for how we should expect the modern-fantasy epic to unravel.
Vikings soaked in corn-syrup blood
Like the 2001 novel, Starz’ version (which debuted at South By Southwest ahead of its TV premiere next Sunday, April 30) begins with main character Shadow Moon (played by Ricky Whittle, from TV’s The 100) on the verge of getting out of prison. We don’t know much—aggravated assault, in the can for about three years—but we do know his loving wife, Laura, has been waiting for him on the outside this whole time.
He finds out a few days before his time is up that he’s getting a surprise early release—though it’s not good news. Laura’s dead. Car crash. Collect your things, Shadow.
But wait! Before that sequence, which is much like the start of the book, we are treated to a savage incident from hundreds of years earlier. A band of Vikings in search of new land come ashore on what will become the United States and discover great strife. One of their ranks is killed almost immediately by a comical number of arrows, and the rest suffer from plague and bug bites. Their only hope is to humble themselves before their god, a narrator explains, who happens to be a god of war. Only when they sacrifice enough of their own blood—and in Starz’s case, that’s gallons of sticky, corn-syrup prop blood—do they receive a firm wind on which to sail home.
This sequence is a far more clever way to flesh out the book—and its stories about the types of gods we worship—for a televised adaptation, as opposed to wildly refreshing or changing elements of the plot. One of the book’s “Somewhere in America” sequences with another character (the mysterious, sexual Bilquis) comes back with a slight modernized tweak, as well. The TV translation does a good job reframing that moment in the book 15 years later.
The most annoying addition Starz makes to the first two chapters is a full-throttle fistfight between Moon and one of Wednesday’s allies, the self-described leprechaun named Mad Sweeney. What had been a more cautious and wary literary exchange of coin tricks between the duo turns into a two-minute bar fight, and Gaiman purists may very well turn their nose up at this change. For the sake of a TV show, however, I argue this tweak does a solid job selling Moon’s ass-kicking past instead of relying on narration about a tougher past life.
For the most part, American Gods‘ 16-years-later edits are fitting. Just like in the novel, the Technical Boy character is introduced here as a confusing, high-tech adversary, but his circa-2001 obsession with Matrix-style technology has evolved appropriately. (Hint: There’s some VR involved now, though it’s done in a clever way.) iPhones have edged out pay phones, though newspaper clippings also still make an appearance.
But Gaiman’s reliance on dream sequences and dialogue-less passages is, for the most part, carried over in this pilot episode. Long scenes play out with Moon simply looking upon strange sights or even just open expanses of country in awe, which gives the filming and editing crew a chance to really flex their muscles. The showrunners should be commended for using this sort of “white space” separation between scenes to ground Moon’s confusion and grief. Whittle firmly sticks the landing between hulking badass and likable, “what, I’m the hero?” everyman, and as soon as his posturing might grow tiresome, McShane pops up and saves the day with enjoyably dark comedy.
Starz showrunners were on hand after the pilot episode’s SXSW screening to confirm that, yes, “the book tends to get into a sausage party with Wednesday and Shadow.” They’re pledging to put more focus on female characters in the book, including Bilquis and Laura Moon. Yetide Badaki’s brief turn as Bilquis in the pilot seems very promising for the kind of darkness she’ll bring to the series, but I really want to see Laura get a better shot at coming off as a well-rounded character than this first episode permits (which the book affords her character, to some extent). I look forward to much more of the entire cast actually, thanks to categorically top-tier performances throughout the entire pilot. (I say this knowing full well that comedian Dane freakin’ Cook appears in later episodes.)
Between the solid acting and the incredible cinematography, complete with gorgeously framed interiors and sweeping open-road shots of Moon crossing the United States, this episode puts Starz in an unfamiliar position. The company has an upcoming series that’s genuinely saddled with incredibly high expectations. The pilot will debut on television on April 30, prepare accordingly.
Listing image by Starz