Amongst the plethora of visual and auditory methods that Bryan Fuller embraced throughout the three near-flawless seasons of NBC’s Hannibal, there was one that seemed to become central. When machines or elements were involved in the narrative, Fuller and his creative team would slow down and get micro. When Mads Mikkelsen‘s titular gentleman-cannibal rode his motorcycle across Florence to meet a new victim, we would see the inner workings of the machine, roaring, pumping, and blowing unmanageable heat from its engine. When a drop of blood entered a pool of water, we’d watch the red ever-so-slightly corrupt its purity; when a slice of liver or kidney was fried up in a pan, Fuller would capture flecks of molten oil and butter spark off the meat as the sizzle from the heat dominated the sound design. This wasn’t only a stylistic curlycue to continuously invigorate his already sumptuous imagery. Like any creative, Fuller was out to capture the full array of human senses, to overwhelm the audience with a feast of diabolical and hard-won experiences that you could see and hear but also, in brief flashes, almost smell and taste off the frame of you HDTV.
In comparison to Pushing Daisies, which could be called his “chrysalis” phase, Hannibal allowed Fuller to open up and let all the demons out. Gore-strewn, sadistically staged set-pieces that would make Tobe Hooper hide under the bed were a regular component of the series, but it just barely hid a ruminative, remarkably intimate consideration of the roles, philosophies, and actions of creators big and small. Hannibal, for whatever else he might have been, was depicted as a brilliant, accomplished artist, one who used lifeless human bodies as centerpieces for outrageous sculptures and stylized, high-end meals. He saw humans as, to use Will Graham’s language, “pigs” that deserve respect, kindness, and generosity but are also easily expendable for the sake of beauty and expression. It begs the question: is earthbound creation inherently an affront to god(s)? If god is cruel, uncaring about human life, and wrathful by nature, is not Hannibal’s creations a perfect reflection of the lord? Heady stuff, to be sure, and mind you, this was on NBC, a company that has worked tirelessly to ensure they take the least amount of risks in programming as humanly possible.
With American Gods, Fuller’s long-awaited adaptation of Neil Gaiman‘s beloved tome, the binds of cable programming’s faustian bargain with the FCC have been lifted, thanks to Starz, an increasingly major player in the TV game with The Girlfriend Experience, Ash vs Evil Dead, The White Princess, and more. Beings of all sorts erupt into great bursts of blood, bone, and guts; distinctly physical boning of all varieties can be gazed upon regularly; the sizable cock of a fire-eyed Jinn (Mousa Kraish) hangs without obfuscation; the naked body of Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), a goddess who devours her worshipers through her vagina, is on proud display; and curse words are flung around with a freedom that would make Peter Capaldi blush. For teenagers and the most basic amongst us, that would be enough to canonize American Gods in the pantheon of modern TV, but like Hannibal, Fuller’s eight-episode series also masks a dazzlingly thoughtful and challenging consideration of the role of the artist in society, as both a creator and as a collaborator. Indeed, a little less than two years after Hannibal‘s third season ended, Fuller has envisioned and produced one of the most vital and unbound series of the last three decades and that is not meant to be taken as hyperbole.
In telling the story of Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), an ex-con who becomes body-man to a malevolent immortal named Mr. Wednesday, played by the reliably delightful Ian McShane, Fuller frees himself from the earthly bounds of Hannibal and thus pushes him further into the ether of imagination, even as he remains largely faithful to the source material. Moon and Wednesday’s relationship remains central to the narrative, as does Shadow’s, er, let’s call it “troubled” relationship with his wife, Laura (Emily Browning), who perishes early on, a death that involves a role played with surprising tenderness and humor by Dane Cook.
Laura’s place in the drama only becomes clear in the fourth episode, the last one screened for critics, where Fuller and co-creator Michael Green stray from the source material to give a more rounded view of Browning’s character’s history with her betrothed. Before that, Fuller begins to set the table for the oncoming war, but the writing is careful to never overtly telegraph how the unwieldy storylines will coalesce into a solidified arc. In fact, the entire series is structured like a kind of holy text, anchored to a central holy figure, but rife with one-off tales of other gods. There’s palpable sense of the belief and faith at work when Omid Abtahi‘s Salim, a young, desperate immigrant, hesitantly bonds with the cab-driving Jinn and then asks him up to his room for some supernatural copulation. (There’s also an unburdened sensitivity and warmth to their love scene, one that is rarely attributed to intimate homosexual acts on TV). The sequence takes up a large portion of the third episode, as we wait with fried nerves to see if Shadow will get his brains bashed out by Czernobog (Peter Stormare), a hammer-wielding immortal, but it feels of a peace with the central story.
The same could be said for the astonishing opening to the second episode, which features Orlando Jones in a short yet revelatory performance as the wicked and furious Mr. Nancy, one of Gaiman’s much-loved Anansi Boys, addressing an audience of shackled slaves. Gaiman’s book was meant to be an alternative mythology as well as a reconsideration of worship in the age of computers and cell phones, and Fuller pushes that further into the realm of social media, the internet, and 3D printing. The most obvious villains of American Gods are Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), a constantly vaping, hipster-haired brat with an endless stream of deadly gadgets and tricks, and Gillian Anderson‘s Media, who most memorably appears as a saucy, dominating version of Lucille Ball on a series of flat-screens. There is some worry here that Fuller could end up proving to be a nostalgist and making Technical Boy and Media into purely evil, self-involved monsters, as compared to the more charmingly displayed, still quite bloody indiscretions indulged in by Wednesday, Laura, or Pablo Schreiber‘s Mad Sweeney — a pugnacious, aggressive six-foot-something leprechaun who can pull coins out of thin air. By evidence of the innumerable, wonderfully nuanced villains of Hannibal, however, this is at best a minor concern for the second half of Fuller’s latest.
The sheer heft of the narrative and all the characters makes it easy to get confused by everything, but the borderline madness that Fuller evinces here is clearly purposeful and he never loses sight of Shadow and Wednesday’s forge. Though he rarely shows off, McShane’s Wednesday carries himself as a man who can do anything that his imagination can call forth, even as he lacks the ubiquitous nature of Technical Boy and Media. It’s this ability that Shadow is beginning to learn: that there is no reason to envision the world in entirely realistic terms. The series never feels as if its flippant in its handling of the dangers of creation or the inherent, occasionally catastrophic mistakes made in controlling one’s more imaginative proclivities, but its forthright and confident in its praise of the power of creatives and storytellers.
Late in one episode, Wednesday tells Shadow to think about snow and then make it snow; in other words, he asks him to pray for snow. When the snow begins to fall, Shadow asks Wednesday if it was his thinking that made it snow or if it was Wednesday, nature, or some other supernatural force, a question to which Wednesday gives an expectedly coy answer. In this case, Wednesday just needed the snow to help with a bank robbery he’s planning, though the overall point was didactic. The criminal and immoral aspects of everything Wednesday and Shadow set into action or witness is not at all lost on Fuller but he’s first and foremost overwhelmed by the bounty of sensations, thoughts, images, and emotions that creation can elicit and even mutate. American Gods is great television but it’s also a tremendous work of self-reflexive art, one that remains outrageously entertaining without giving away the complex, violent mysteries at its roiling core.
Rating: ★★★★★ – Excellent
American Gods airs on Sunday nights at 10 p.m. EST on Starz.