If you haven’t tuned in to American Gods on Amazon Prime, you are missing an episodic fantasy thriller with honest and profound observations about the evolution of America.
It was back in November 2016 that we first brought you news of the production, based on the 2001 mythological fantasy novel of the same name. That was when the author, British writer Neil Gaiman publicly gave the star and the production his wholehearted support. It was a particularly important endorsement, because, even though he described the protagonist as a racially ambiguous character with “coffee and cream” skin and a mother who may have been Native American or African-American, there was enough skepticism about Hollywood whitewashing such ‘loosely’ ascribed features and casting a white actor (Oh yes they do! See Hermione Granger, Harry Potter franchise and Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games franchise, Michael Jackson…).
So when the announcement came in mid-2014 that American Gods was heading for a multi-part live action production, fans launched the #CastingShadow campaign to protect the 14-year racial heritage of the character. Even they played it reasonably safe, throwing Hawaiian-German Jason Momoa (Aquaman, 2018, Game of Thrones, 2011-12) and the blue-eyed African-American Jesse Williams (Grey’s Anatomy, 2009- ) up for consideration on social media. In early 2016, when Whittle got the part, fans were delighted, satisfied that he would totally embody the prison-hardened bouncer described on the page.
Gaiman said, “I’m thrilled… His auditions were remarkable. The process of taking a world out of the pages of a book, and putting it onto the screen has begun. American Gods is, at its heart, a book about immigrants, and it seems perfectly appropriate that Shadow will, like so much else, be Coming to America.”
Producers Michael Green and Bryan Fuller agreed, “We searched every continent and country and all the islands in between for our Shadow Moon, and we are lucky to have found Ricky. Fans are delighted…”
Gaiman himself enjoys near god-like status in Hollywood and at home, penning short fiction, novels, comic books, graphic novels, audio theatre, TV shows and film, and so may have had more influence than the average scriptwriter. His novels Stardust and Coraline have both been dramatised for the big screen (2007 and 2009, respectively), preceded by Neverwhere (1996), which became a 6-part British TV show featuring our own award winning blacktress Tanya Moodie. He has contributed to all screenplays. He has also written for Beowulf (2007), Doctor Who (2011-13) and the utterly brilliant Lucifer (2015-17), also currently on Amazon Prime.
American Gods is a classic, focusing on the exploits of Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane: Deadwood, Lovejoy) and Brit-on-the-rise Ricky Whittle’s ex-con Shadow Moon, as they traverse the American cultural and geographical landscape in a buddy road show for the ages, to recruit the forgotten gods of the indigenous and subsequent immigrant peoples arriving in the Americas.
Episode 1 begins with the arrival of the Norse gods, and we briefly meet Yetide Badaki as the enigmatic Bilquis for the first time – an immortal soul-eating succubus, terrifying in her apparent innocence as it gives way to feral satiation. But, it’s in episode 2 that we get a rare treat whose prologue gives a brief account of the arrival of the African gods. Newly transported slave Okoye (Conphidance) is still in transit, but already in despair. He prays fervently, only to be answered with an outstanding monologue by the fiery Orlando Jones’s Anansi/Mr. Nancy (the EXCELLENT Sleepy Hollow 2013-15, Drumline, 2002, Evolution, 2001). It is toe-curlingly good.
Fellow Brit-on-the-rise Chris Obi (Star Trek: Discovery, 2017, The Call Up, 2016, Snow White and The Huntsman, 2012) Anubis makes his first appearance in episode 3, and so on. The brilliant concept of immigrants transplanting their ancestral gods to America is simple and brilliantly made. Obi also embodies Mr. Jaekel who, along with Africa-American Demore Barnes as Mr. Ibis, gives us a serene pair of embalmers! So, introductions over, Mr. Wednesday intends to wage war on the new gods of technology and consumerism, with the help of Moon and various mythological immortals. It is a full-on sensory overload of frank emotions, thought-provoking exchanges and bloody violence, which you will find hard to resist.
This is Whittle’s first starring role, a testament to his talent that he was chosen to head up a star cast after leaving the UK. The Oldham-born actor is no stranger to recurring roles, starring in Dream Team (2002-07), Hollyoaks (2006-11) & Hollyoaks Later (2008-13). He headed across the Atlantic, where, recurring roles followed in Single Ladies (2012) and Mistresses (2015-16), before winning the life-changing recurring, pivotal role as brooding, sensitive warrior Lincoln in seasons 1-3 of The 100 (201 4-16) – a perfect prelude to Shadow. Now, his beefed up, heart-broken ex-con (and American accent) is satisfyingly convincing, as is his bewilderment at being drawn into impossible situations with impossible beings.
Whittle manages to hold your empathy, rather than just deciding he’s just a bit dim and moving on, and more than rises to the challenge of sharing the screen not only with McShane, but also an astonishing Gillian Anderson (Viceroy’s House, 2017, The X Files, 1993-2002 & 2016,), who deserves a special mention for using her unique features to impeccably don guises of modern pop icons as true chameleon, Media; Betty Gilpin does such a fantastic job as cuckolded widow, Audrey, you may want to rewind her scenes just to enjoy her unfiltered reactions to some FUS (f@*ked up sh1t); Veteran of playing the ‘other’ Peter Stormare as Czernabog, a god of death (Prison Break, 2005-09) and an ever excellent Crispin Glover (Alice In Wonderland, 2010) as Mr. World will convince you to look twice at the next prophetic or nihilistic stranger you meet!
It’s fascinating to witness such a strong narrative tackle faith, race, immigration, media and technology, written 16 years ago but probably more relevant in today’s devout committal to social media. It shows a certain amount of prescience by the author!
With a weekly Amazon release of each episode (number 7 of 8 due Monday June 12th), after airing on Starz in the US, showrunners Fuller and Green, and the 2 principals, Whittle and McShane, spoke on stage at Deadline’s The Contenders Emmys, shortly after the show was confirmed for a second season.
Executive Producer Fuller said, “First and foremost, it was a wonderful platform to talk about faith and belief and where we put our energies in this country… Then you look at the fantastic characters, gods and mortals, and it is a vast toy box… I think the big thing that’s changed since 2001 and 2017 is the proliferation of social media and what that means to everyday citizens who are now hemorrhaging their privacy.”
It was just a question of updating Gaiman’s work for today realities – digital and otherwise.
Emily Browning, Pablo Schreiber, Kristin Chenoweth, Jonathan Tucker, Omid Abtahi, Cloris Leachman, Corbin Bernsen as Vulcan, Bruce Langley as Techno Boy, round out the cast.
Seriously, it’s time you caught up!