Angela Hicks and Calder Hudson were both Creative Writing MSc students at the University of Edinburgh for the 2015-16 year. They set out to workshop Starz’ new series, American Gods, shortly after the show’s debut; once they’d completed its first season, the two conducted the following discussion to express their thoughts.
This discussion contains spoilers for Season One of American Gods. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the authors and not necessarily of The Ogilvie editorial staff.
C: As is tradition, we’ll begin by specifying our knowledge of the source material for this show. Angela and I have both read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (in its original 2001 version, rather than Gaiman’s preferred text–the slightly longer tenth-anniversary edition). I don’t think either of us are Gaiman fanatics, but we were both interested in this show and we’d planned on watching and workshopping it for a long time. I was super enthusiastic about this going in; I’d been reading a lot about the show–interviews, promotional materials, that sort of thing–and it all looked promising.
A: American Gods felt like a good book to adapt for TV. It’s a long tome so they had plenty of source material; it has one main story narrative–Shadow’s journey with Mr Wednesday; it has a lot of interesting characters. But the book also has weaknesses–times when characters are underdeveloped, for instance–which I felt that a show could change and redress quite successfully.
C: Yeah, agreed. [sighs] With that said, having watched the first season, I have to admit I’m colossally disappointed in the results. I don’t think this is the weakest show we’ve workshopped but I’m overwhelmingly disheartened by the end product. The show has many positive aspects, but its execution felt wholly underwhelming.
A: Underwhelming is a good word to use for this show. It has the source material, it sets things up, but somehow it fails to deliver, leaving me pretty indifferent with the end result.
C: Now we have the challenge of considering why that is. We do these as workshops rather than reviews because we’re interested in looking at the way certain things work–or conversely don’t work–in shows, and how they can be fixed.
A: That’s part of the reason, I think, that we review the first seasons of shows–because they can often still be in that developmental stage, finding their feet and working things out.
C: Right, and because it means we get to watch lots of new shows.
A: [laughs] That too. But back to AG–what do you think the main reason neither of us were…super excited at the end of this first season?
C: I think if I were to describe the show in one word–and I don’t think this word is necessarily a damning thing–it’d be “indulgent”. That’s true of the book as well–particularly Gaiman’s preferred edition–and on the one hand the detail is often very visceral and evocative. But the negative of this approach is that pacing can feel laggardly and blunted by the excess of interjections and information in the main narrative. The takeaway the show should have had from the book was, put bluntly, the story needed more conciseness and forward momentum, but if anything, it’s worse than the books in this respect. The show had the chance to improve on some of the book’s vulnerabilities, but it didn’t learn from those lessons at all.
A: I think when you talk about overindulgence and slow pacing, it falls into two separate categories, both of which are detrimental to the show. Firstly there’s the drawn out cinematography which overemphasizes many details. We’re shown a gramophone, then we’re shown it being set to play, then we’re shown the needle start, and then we watch the record turn… Any tension is undercut by boredom as the audience waits for things to happen.
C: It’s clearly a conscious choice by the show, but I think you’re right–it doesn’t work, at least not to the extent they use it.
A: And secondly, they add in even more material which doesn’t appear in the book. And it’s not a short book to start with. Some additions work–I think Vulcan as a gun producer nicely brings it into 21st century America. But then we get an entire episode–the seventh out of eight, so really close to the end, when we should be building up to that big finale–which is all about how the Irish fairies came to America via the tales of a random woman called Essie. It just feels like superfluous filler.
C: To be fair, the story behind the seventh episode exists within the books; it’s just not as overemphasized. I expect the Essie narrative was included to try to create a more multitudinous, mystical atmosphere, but given the pacing already felt slow before then, it was exhausting. In some cases this same issue doomed more interesting ideas, too, which is a shame–like how we’re given more backstory for Laura Moon, Shadow’s dead wife. It’s a nice idea to develop her story, but they dedicate an enormous amount of time to it without giving it any drive.
A: I didn’t think the Laura stuff worked. This is one of those cases where less is more. Adding in so much doesn’t make her sympathetic or engaging, it makes her less interesting. Also, by showing her so much from the start, it undercuts the power and impact which she has in the book when she returns to Shadow’s life.
C: I think we disagree about that to some extent, but I do agree that Laura’s enigmatic agency, which really comes through in the book, feels obfuscated by the show’s excess. From a workshopping perspective, you’re right; there are whole shots, scenes and pretty much whole episodes which could all be heavily cut or removed entirely without the audience feeling they’d lost something conducive to the show’s central premise.
A: Agreed. And I also think that they have too many narrative threads which aren’t streamlined or interwoven.
C: Like Czernobog–we meet him in what might be my favorite sequence in the show, and he seemingly joins the core cast, only to never show up in this season again. The book is already sprawling, but the show takes this to a new level and it’s so frustrating. In the book Czernobog’s there in the famous ‘House on the Rock’ scene for the big reveal about the gods–the plot’s crux–which is where I assumed they were going to end the first season of the show. Instead they don’t get to this natural focal point, which would have established the show’s goals and stakes really effectively in a poignant finale. They get seven-eighths of the way there, but because they’re moving so slowly, they don’t make it–but they still want the content from that scene, so they shoehorn it in earlier, lessening the impact of those big, exciting reveals.
A: If they’d cut the Essie episode, they could’ve easily reached House on the Rock, and it would have been nice to tie in Czernobog and Mr Nancy again.
C: Exactly. It’s… it’s disappointing, to say the least. But, on a happier note, I want to touch on all the positive things about the series too–some of the additions and alterations the show makes are really great. Some minor characters are reworked from cameo appearances into much more fleshed-out roles; for example, the character of Salim (played by Omid Abtahi) has only a minor role in the source material, but he is transformed in the show into a more crucial (and interesting) figure. I wish the show had included more of him.
A: That’s true. I also think the depiction of Media (Gillian Anderson) is very well done and an occasion where the show’s penchant for stylization is effective and suits the character.
C: As always, we can’t fault the casting of the show. Anderson does terrifically in the role of Media.
A: And, as mentioned above, the show’s addition of the character of Vulcan (Corbin Bernsen) and his acceptance of the new world order also worked well. The show does a good job of updating itself while partnering certain atmospheres with certain characters. The same is true of Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), whose role has been nicely expanded from the book. The show takes time to set up why some of the old gods take the deals offered by the new regime of Mr World et al., something which the book doesn’t manage as effectively.
C: The show also makes sound choices and changes with respect to Shadow himself (played excellently by Ricky Whittle). He’s far more vocal than his book counterpart–an expected change given the different mediums; as a result we get a bit more of his immediate reactions to situations he and Wednesday find themselves in. Shadow’s been adapted well for the screen and Whittle does a terrific job of bringing him to life.
A: You’re right; keeping him predominantly silent wouldn’t work–though Whittle is very talented and gets a lot across with facial expressions and body language. I found this Shadow more likable and nuanced.
C: Another positive part of the TV series–my favorite segment from the season, which I touched on earlier–is the chess game between Shadow and Czernobog (Peter Stormare). Not only are the individual performances top-notch, but the atmosphere in that scene is excellent–and to give credit where credit is due, when this show is good, it’s good, and it certainly knows how to establish atmosphere. Moments like that are incredibly satisfying. It’s just a shame that too often the show hasn’t considered the book’s vulnerabilities or learnt from mistakes made by other shows of its kind.
A: Such as its often iffy portrayals of women? The book also isn’t always excellent at its female characters, but it was admittedly written some time ago–TV shows today should get less sympathy, given they have a chance to modernize.
C: I think the way this show tackles some issues like race and sexuality is quite effective, but yeah, I wouldn’t really say it tackles anything relating to women or femininity.
A: I don’t know that it really is that good at portraying different races and different cultures–it has quite a cherry-picking approach to representing their mythologies which perhaps means it veers closer to voyeurism than true representation. But to focus on women for the moment–there are certainly some issues regarding its portrayal of women. There’s Laura, who sort of… asserts her dominance through espousing a fondness for sex, and through distancing herself from other women in this regard.
C: Yeah, you can tell a guy wrote a lot of that.
A: Yes. It’s… it’s whatever–lazy, under-developed, out-of-touch, cheap. And then there’s the voice-over line uttered by Mr Ibis of “Intelligence has never been uncommon among women”, which is at best weird, and at worst incredibly patronizing and insulting. It’s one of those lines you can’t quite believe that all of the writers, editors and actors read and thought was good.
C: It’s one line, but it’s an immensely disappointing line indicative of overarching issues with the script.
A: Speaking of immensely disappointing…
A: That opening scene of episode one–the prologue–the scene which is meant to hook viewers in. I hated it. It’s one of those many times where the show’s languorous style really doesn’t work. It could have been a powerful scene, but it ends up being tedious and, as is so often the case in this show, raising too many questions which it has no interest in answering–for example, why do the Vikings, when they decide to fight to please the gods, fight each other and not their enemies inland? I think that the book’s opening–of Shadow in prison–is a better beginning, and more coherent.
C: I had fewer problems with the show’s opening, but yes, if you’re going to change things from the source material, then you need to be damn sure that it’s better; this show doesn’t manage that.
A: And about the show’s ending, which, as you mentioned earlier, is not that similar to the corresponding scene in the source material. I got the sense watching AG with you that, while I was annoyed at it from pretty early on, you gradually lost patience with it throughout the season. But did that dramatic finale redeem it for you at all?
C: Sadly, it didn’t. This show takes so much time–a whole season–to establish one of the central tenets of the story: for the gods, belief is power, with worship strengthening them and disinterest making them atrophy. And yet the show repeatedly overrides said rules; in cinematic situations this central rule is thrown out the window. The show ends with Easter (or rather, Ostara)–who is described as having only a sort of proxy-power at present through her alliance with the modernist cabal–essentially depriving America of all its crops and agriculture. This is a much greater display of power than any other god or deity has shown in the show thus far, so it’s disorienting, given that Ostara has supposedly been living off of referential praise and not true worship as the show asserts. The rules don’t seem to matter all that much.
A: I had similar questions about AG’s internal logic in other places too. For example, it adds in deities like Jesus who are still worshipped today. The plot of “old, forgotten gods versus technological dominion” is good, but through adding in religions which are still followed in the present day, the premise starts to get a lot more confusing and woolly–why does the character who believes in Allah end up with the Egyptian god then, and so on? I think having ‘modern’ gods was an unnecessary move which clutters things up. The show would’ve been better to shore up and improve what they already had rather than introducing more partially-explained concepts to the narrative.
C: I actually disagree there–I do think they could have made the inclusion of the different representations of Christ work, had they exerted a bit more effort. But you’re right–the world’s rules are very unclear in the show, which is disheartening given that it has time to make them clear. The show has plenty of source material–what it needs now is gumption.
A: And to return to your comment about the finale–yes, if it’s going to invent an ending which diverges quite heavily from the book, it needs to have increased its pace and plot a lot, because otherwise viewers have too much time to consider plot-holes, and to find faults in what you’re watching. The show should either have done a whistle-stop tour of action, or a very pared-down adaptation with respect to characters, but with a lot more depth. Instead it fails on both fronts.
C: Yes indeed; though there are benefits to the show’s indulgent approach, this indulgence causes significant problems in relation to depth and pacing. To go back to the show’s opening, we spoke about the prologue, but not the credits; I think–if this isn’t too cliché a thing to say–the opening credits are emblematic of the show with respect to overarching flaws. They aren’t ugly, but they’re excessively long, and don’t do much other than take up time. This show has a very specific visual aesthetic–one achieved predominantly through a lot of vibrant colors and CGI–which actually works well by and large; some of the animated sequences are very pretty. But it all adds to the feeling that, for all the show’s glitz, there isn’t enough substance beneath it; it’s all frosting with no cake underneath. And look: I understand that this show is beginning with some preset laurels it can rest on. Similar shows are doing well on TV; they clearly paced this out to have multiple seasons; Gaiman’s book is already beyond celebrated. But their desire to set up a long-running saga has resulted in a bumpy introduction.
A: You said, after the end of the last episode, that you’d grudgingly watch a second season of this show; I’m not sure I would. The show isn’t abysmal–as you argued, the visual style works at times, and some scenes are wonderfully atmospheric–but I gave it eight hours and it couldn’t bring it together for me.
C: That’s tough, but fair. Though I quite liked the book and though I had immense hopes for this show, I’m not sure it deserves the second season which will assuredly follow this one down the line. Even if they failed to learn from the book’s missteps, I hope the writing team behind the show can learn from the mistakes they made when starting out; moving forward, I hope American Gods can find the momentum and substance its first season lacked.