3 out of 5
Developed by: Bryan Fuller, Michael Green
covers season 1
Is that it?
Heads up, y’all: I’ve never been much for Neil Gaiman. Even (I think) before I’d formed an association in my head of what a Neil Gaiman project seemed to typically entail, I worked at a shop that allowed me the opportunity to read some classic trades, including – you guessed it – Sandman. I suffered my way the first volume, sort of perplexed at the kind of praise it received, but plunged forth via some encouragement that things got better.
For me, they didn’t. I like some fantasy, and I respect Gaiman’s vision and approach, but this was an approach to fantasy that did not work godid not work for me. Subsequent forays into Gaiman territory yielded similar results.
But: Adaptations of things I dislike can be fun, and maybe the visual moving picture medium – translating Gaiman’s American Gods novel into a TV show – would mesh better with the prosaic text gloss he uses for which I generally don’t care. Maybe! Also an issue I have with Gaiman’s writing: to me, it’s a lot of flowery imagery without much requirement to think; creative pictures applied to staid concepts. I accept this is relative, in the sense that the ideas in which I might like to delve are black and white to others, but a review has to be flavored with some degree of bias, and I’m trying to be up front with mine, so bugger off with telling me what I’m missing so I can rewatch these Amazing Gumball episodes, filling in the emptiness left by American Gods. …Because the show would seem to share those unfavorable qualities with the writing, its story of parolee Shadow Moon getting conscripted to work for the mysterious Mr. Wednesday – and the increasingly odd characters he meets along the way, while Wednesday seems to be orchestrating some kind of war – is, at this point, but a fanciful study on faith and the power of it, without adding much to the conversation. Thankfully, creator Brian Fuller brings the same visual aplomb to things as he did with Hannibal, which dressed up that show’s dour and mundane go-nowhere ‘psychological’ games with astounding sets and production, a wonderfully creepy score from Brian Reitzell, and a can’t-tear-your-eyes-away performance from Mads Mikkelsen. Here, things are more quirkily dark than dour (which was an element of Sandman), with zombies, drunken leprechauns, genius and sex godesses all getting their elaborately flourished screen time, with more Reitzell music, and a well cast duo of Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon and Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday, with the former playing something of our innocent, POV straight man.
Even here the formula gets a bit wonky, though, as Whittle’s part is underwritten in terms of how he responds to everything going on around him (and I do blame the script/direction for this and not the actor, as Whittle burbles on screen with engagement), and the miscasting of Gillian Anderson in a role as sort of fanservice to folks who loved her in Hannibal. But first and foremost because there’s very little sense of momentum to the story, even though there is this brewing war theme. This is similar to another adaptation from the past season: Preacher. In both cases, we have a strong visual sense that relies on the backbone of its source material for direction without actually leaving that same sensibility in the TV-ized version.
I’m being awfully hard on this for a show I enjoyed from week to week, but for something so intent on being intentional, I never came out of an episode with my expectations superceded. Alas, like watching Hannibal just to see the crazy kill designs, American Gods’ presentation is aces (assuming you’re used to Fuller’s apparent need to linger on things in slo-mo, like a poet Zack Snyder) and I marvel at the work done week to week, and at the actors (mostly) selling it.
Still not a Gaiman fan, though.