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On to today’s review…
Premise: A recently released convict travels to his wife’s funeral, only to meet a mysterious man along the way who tricks him into becoming his employee. Employee for what though? That’s the question.
About: I’m surprised American Gods (a multi-award winning novel) hasn’t made it to our television sets sooner. The geek-friendly IP is a favorite amongst horror and fantasy savants and its author, Neil Gaiman, celebrated to the level of deity. You’d think with super-show Game of Thrones pulling in watch parties that rival that of The Bachelor, a show based on “Gods” would’ve been next on deck. Now that it’s finally here, the question is, will anyone be able to find it? The show will air on Starz, and while that network has put out some quality television, it doesn’t seem to have the footprint that buzzier destinations Netflix, HBO, and AMC have. This one’s being adapted by some heavy hitters though. Bryan Fuller is the creator of the beloved (but ultimately little-watched) NBC show, Hannibal, and Michael Green scripted the new Alien AND the new Blade Runner movies.
Writers: Bryan Fuller & Michael Green
Details: 57 pages
So let me tell you about my history with Neil Gaiman. At 12 years old, I, like every other kid, started reading Stephen King. And if you remember what it was like to read Stephen King at 12 year old… well it was akin to running through -12 degree weather with a pack of wild dogs chasing you. In a word – thrilling. And the metaphor truly is apt because when you finally escaped them, just like when you finally escaped “It,” you felt like you got away with something.
But then you hit your teens and all of a sudden books weren’t cool anymore. Sports were cool. Going out was cool. Girls were cool. And even if you didn’t totally agree with the notion, you felt like you’d outgrown King. I mean how does King compete with your first trip to second base?
Somewhere around that time I began to hear of Neil Gaiman. Neil Gaiman, people said, was the next Stephen King. With me being “over” King, I felt it only obvious that I couldn’t then read another version of King. Which means my history with Neil Gaiman is zip. I don’t know anything about the guy. I don’t know anything about any of his books or anything that he’s done.
As I’ve grown up, I realized that King still had a lot left to say and that being too cool for him or any author is silly. But I still never got back to Gaiman. That leaves me writing this review from a place of ignorance. But sometimes that’s for the best. It means I can judge the pilot solely on its story and not on if it’s meeting the expectations of everyone who loves the book so much.
Shadow is a 30 year-old prisoner with five more days left on his sentence. Luckily for Shadow, the warden calls him in to let him know he’s being released tomorrow. Unluckily for Shadow, it’s because his wife just died in a car accident.
Shadow hops on a plane to head home for the funeral, and that’s where he meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, a 60 year-old chatterbox who looks like he should be hustling a 2 for 1 Miller Lite deal in some sleazy south Florida bar.
Sensing his taste for law-breaking, Mr. Wednesday wants to hire Shadow to work for him. Shadow kindly declines, but when the plane is diverted due to weather, and Shadow tries to drive the rest of the way, Mr. Wednesday keeps showing up at all of Shadow’s stops, inquiring about that hiring. We get the sense that there’s something otherworldly about this fella.
Shadow finally gets home, only to learn that there’s more to his wife’s death than he was told. As in she died with another man’s dick in her mouth. That dick belonging to Shadow’s best friend. This leaves Shadow in a very dark place, which we can only guess will spur him to take that job with Mr. Wednesday. Now if we only knew what Mr. Wednesday planned to do with him.
American Gods contains symbols, philosophy, and dream sequences. In other words, all the stuff that I hate. Why do I hate this stuff? Because it’s cheap. 9 times out of 10 it’s a go-to crutch for when you don’t know what to do with your story. Don’t know where the characters are going next? Uhhh… Here’s a tree made out of bones to distract you! And someone talking about how storms are like birds!
To put this in perspective, this is the same thing I knocked a little pilot script called True Detective for. And that turned out all right. Well, for you guys anyway. Not for me.
But American Gods gradually pulls itself out of that haze and provides us with a narrative (Shadow trying to get to his wife’s funeral). While things do start to pick up, I couldn’t help but feel like not enough was happening. Yes our hero’s got a goal. Yes there’s something intriguing about Mr. Wednesday. And there is a holy-shit scene where a woman swallows a man up in her vagina during sex.
But I was never compelled to find out what happened next. The goal didn’t seem important enough (if he doesn’t get to the funeral, so what?). The mystery didn’t seem mysterious enough.
But the biggest problem with American Gods is one that I’m assuming they discuss all the time in the writers room. This is a complex world. I don’t even know what the fucking genre is. The final scene has Shadow, our main character, as a stock ticker, and his value doubling. What the hell does that mean?
For readers of the book who know exactly what’s going on, a moment like this makes them grin. Me? I don’t have any reference points. There’s nothing for me to compare this to. And as I kept reading, I wondered if that was going to be a blessing or a curse. How “out of the loop” can non-fans of the book be before they give up? Do you try to play to them then? Or stay with the super-fans?
Another thing I still haven’t figured out in the TV world is how little plot you can get away with. You can’t have fast-moving plots in every TV episode. It’s impossible. It’s more about putting characters in rooms and exploring the conflict between them. Which is exactly what they’ve done here.
And yet it doesn’t feel like enough. At least in your pilot, you gotta go bigger, don’t you?? Then you can pull back in subsequent episodes. But I don’t think you can sneak into your story with a TV show these days. There are too many of them out there, too many reasons to turn the channel. If you don’t wow us right away, we won’t tune in again. I keep trying to remind people that the Game of Thrones pilot, while slow, ended with a brother and sister having sex and the brother pushing a young boy off a tower to his death. Uhhhh… I’m going to come back to see what happens next after that. I’m not so sure I’m coming back to see what Stock Ticker Shadow means.
Long story short, I wanted to be punched in the gut by this pilot. Instead I was massaged. And while that massage was relaxing, it’s not compelling me to come back for more.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I personally think choices are more dramatically compelling if we understand the stakes. The major choice driving this story is “Will Shadow work for Mr. Wednesday?” Unfortunately, we don’t know what Mr. Wednesday does. So we don’t know if working for him is going to be a good thing or a bad thing. And hence we’re not that interested in whether Shadow says yes or no.