For those of you unaware, Starz Network produced one of the its finest contributions to pop culture a few years back with its gobsmackingly stellar Spartacus series. (I say this with full knowledge that the blood and sandals epic wasn’t exactly to everyone’s liking, but – for those of you who “got” it – the show was like nothing else. It was a rarity that managed to impressively grow its audience size from start to finish.) With buckets of blood and heaving bosoms whenever it had the chance, Spartacus revisited the tale of the gladiator (over four seasons) who rose up and challenged not so much a nation as he did a way of life, inspiring others to join his crusade against Rome. The program received multiple awards nominations throughout its run, and Starz briefly considered a spinoff that would’ve allegedly focused on the life of Caesar, though I’m uncertain as to what fate befell that potential property.
So genre works “work” for Starz, and – if the pilot episode “The Bone Orchard” is any indication – I suspect American Gods is a natural fit for them.
Gods tells the story of the deities of old clashing with those of the new; as civilizations have grown separated from their various faiths, those gods have lost much of their luster. In an attempt to regain their prominence, the All-Father (aka Odin, aka Mr. Wednesday, as played in the series by Ian McShane) plots to recruit the heavenly old-timers in a bid to go to war against the newcomers, and he recruits ex-con Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle, formerly of The CW’s The 100) to serve as his bodyguard and closest accomplice. There’s plenty more to the story – some of which involves Shadow’s wife and a veritable pantheon of supporting players – but that synopsis works for the purposes of this review.
“The Bone Orchard” rather efficiently introduces most of these players, but a new god brought on toward the end of the hour is handled clumsily – like a drug tripping sidebar – and without much explanation. The entrance is given a highly-stylized, CGI-fueled presentation, one that’s thematically the opposite of what’s come before where dialogue, nuance, and relationships were handled with deft. While this probably came off as intended, it was still enough of a break to pull me out of the previous experience to wonder if I’d somehow changed the channel, and that’s never a good thing.
In part, “Gods” is coming from the skilled storyteller Bryan Fuller who did some incredibly impressive work on NBC’s three seasons of Hannibal; those of us who stuck with that program from start to finish will warn you that occasionally the visuals overtook an otherwise flat narrative. Granted, Fuller’s sensibilities always rescued the episode before the final reel, but that doesn’t mean all of Hannibal’s meals went down easily (pun intended). Like Twin Peaks experienced back in its days, “Gods” runs the risk of alienating viewers before they can sink their teeth in, much less hang on for the long run, so hopefully Fuller and crew will strike some balance with what lies ahead.
Well, anyone who has followed Fuller (if we’re being honest) will tell you that he’s probably the best ‘niche’ director in television. The list of his programs (i.e. Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies, Hannibal, Dead Like Me) read like a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ or a ‘What’s What’ of quality programming that defied labels but still built audiences … albeit small ones. There’s something to be said for ambitious storytelling, but when television and the internet provide so many alternatives to traditional or pay cable networks I suspect suits will be pushing for ratings’ success. “Gods” might have to deliver if it wants to stay in production, much less relevant. In that regard, only time will tell.
Hey, look: everyone knows I tend to champion even genre shows I don’t personally much care for (i.e. Babylon 5, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Westworld, etc.), so just because I found this first installment a bit confusing is no reason for me to give it thumbs-down or for you to go and find something else to watch. “The Bone Orchard” did what it could to present a world worthy of your time and patience; and – on that estimation alone – methinks this is the kind of thing worth tuning in for a handful of episodes before you either endorse it or write it off as artistic fodder.