American Gods: Season 1 – The Bone Orchard REVIEW

"...American Gods is off to a pretty divine start."

“Sorry about the blood,” Neil Gaiman sheepishly offered. He smiled slightly, which the audience answered with a brief swell of laughter. It was an interesting crowd. Many of us were there to see the first episode from Gaiman’s novel American Gods, which remains a wild blend of violence, loss, desperation, gods, monsters, and Americana—sixteen or so years after it was published.

A lot of people were also there for Bryan Fuller. The Hannibal fandom is alive and well. Before, during, and after an event that promised a screening of American Gods’ first episode, as well as a conversation afterwards between Gaiman and Fuller, my wife and I noticed several people wearing flower crowns. I guess that’s a reference? I haven’t looked it up yet, and I’ve only ever seen the first season of Hannibal (which I liked).

Moments after apologizing for the blood we were apparently about to see, Gaiman stepped away from the stage at Bard College’s Richard B Fisher Center for Performing Arts, and the first highly anticipated episode began. American Gods is a lengthy novel. It is also an extremely ambitious adaptation project for anyone. Even someone as talented at creating character-driven, visually complex episodic television like Fuller was going to have their hands full, in terms of bringing the book to a life worth living. Fans of the book were concerned. I wasn’t. I considered the pedigree of the talent involved, the budget the show had been given by its home network Starz, and the fact that technology can now keep up with the imagination of someone like Neil Gaiman.

With all of that in mind, it seemed highly unlikely that everyone was going to fuck this up. Although these things do happen. We’re all old enough and smart enough to know that.

But at least as far as the first episode is concerned, you don’t have a lot to worry about. “The Bone Orchard” is a near-perfect introduction to this world and these characters. It consists of iconic moments from the book, actors who connected us to their characters from the first word, and more than enough exposition to establish where we are, and where we might go next. Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) is about to be released from prison. With days left on his sentence, his world on the outside collapses under news about his wife (Emily Browning). Released early, he is approached by a mysterious figure who refers to himself as Wednesday. Even if you haven’t read the book, you will probably figure out that Shadow refusing Wednesday’s vague offer of a job isn’t going to hold up. By the end of the episode, for good or ill, Shadow is millions of miles deep in the strange, duplicitous world Wednesday seemingly inhabits. We conclude “The Bone Orchard” with a shot that makes this clear to us in no uncertain terms.

Oh, and Neil was right. There is a lot of blood in the first episode of American Gods. Gaiman assured one audience member during the Q&A after the screening that most of the gore in American Gods can be found in that first episode. Most of you will be relieved to know that. I know several others who are going to be a little disappointed.

Almost everyone should be pleased with the first episode as a whole. Despite a soundtrack that is occasionally distracting, American Gods is off to a pretty divine start. From a visual standpoint, fans of the book will be pleased with the faithful recreations, including the characters themselves. From a performances standpoint, the singular style of the show (which might be at least a little familiar to the most dedicated Bryan Fuller fans) is matched by good actors giving us a lot to be excited about at the start. Ricky Whittle understands that Shadow Moon is something of an empty canvas in a transitional period. He has to be the straight man to his descent/ascent, it really does depend on your perspective, into the worlds of gods. Shadow must also possess a very dry humor, the ability to take the surreal in stride (with just a touch of wonder, because this shit would be stupefying to everyone), and a spirit that is weighed down by monumental grief. We’ll see how things go as the series progresses, but it is obvious that Whittle can display all of those traits on one level or another.

His scenes with Wednesday and wife Laura are also strong indicators that American Gods has a convincing actor for its lead. However, for those characters, Whittle also gets to play opposite two very good actors in Ian McShane and Emily Browning. The first episode doesn’t give us much with Browning, but we do get shows promise, particularly if you already have an idea of where the story is going from here. Ian McShane is one of the best actors working today. His energy, distinctive voice, and piercing, knowing eyes allow him to elevate the bland mentor/father roles he sometimes get. However, when you get to watch him play a character as vital and instantly memorable as Wednesday, everything is a joy. As he proves in the episode, McShane can even make falling asleep exciting.

There is more than enough in this episode to suggest American Gods has been worth the long wait for TV/film adaptation. At one point, a series was going to be on HBO. Apparently, they couldn’t quite figure it out. So far, Starz is proving that it might have been the best fit for the show all along. The network has started to get interesting with their original series’ over the past couple of years. American Gods represents their ambition to get to the next tier in prestige programming. Episode 1 is a good step in that direction.

Lengthy applause and cheers followed the last scene cutting to the end credits. Gaiman and Fuller came out afterwards to read notecards, containing questions submitted by audience members earlier. There weren’t any social media-crippling revelations, although Gaiman indicated that a six-part Good Omens adaptation could go into pre-production sooner, rather than later. They mostly discussed the process of bringing American Gods to Starz. Both men were funny, generous with their answers, and pleased to see everyone so receptive to “The Bone Orchard.” Their chat brought a great preview screening to a gratifying end.

Also: No, Bryan Fuller doesn’t know when the next season of Hannibal is coming. He seems pretty committed to making that happen though, so if you’re waiting for a fix that might not ever come, there is that.

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