Remarkably, “American Gods” feels like a bad dream. That sensation of perpetual surprise, the disorientation of the seemingly normal, is what characterizes the experience of its protagonist Shadow (Ricky Whittle), a convict who discovers on the eve of his release that his wife Laura (Emily Browning) has died in a car accident. It gets worse: At the moment of impact, she had his best friend’s dick in her mouth.
This twist of fate is heartbreaking because it is so ordinary; with surprising consistency, people cheat, fall in love, disappoint each other, and then die. Just a few days more, and Shadow and Laura would have been reunited; perhaps he would have never learned about the affair, or would have forgiven her for it. Shadow, when the audience meets him, is sleepwalking his way through disappointment and grief — struggling to reconcile the life he had envisioned with the tragedy of the world as it is.
But — thanks to both the whims of fate and grand cosmic design — he will be doing a lot more of that. “American Gods” is about Shadow, but the show — based on the excellent novel by Neil Gaiman — is more broadly about that sense of unmoored reality, when the experience of the world you know shifts underneath you. “American Gods” follows Shadow as he takes an unexpected job offer from an enigmatic character and ends up a sidekick in a war for the ages: A battle between gods for dominion over America. Of course, neither he nor the audience has any idea that that’s what’s happening for the first several episodes, unless you have already read the novel. The result is a sprawling, beautiful show that is fascinating, brilliantly executed, and rather hard to follow. There’s a narrator who never is introduced, a series of gods who do not take the trouble to introduce themselves, and a sense of electric possibility in a landscape that is otherwise dull beyond belief. It’s not just Shadow that is unmoored, it’s the audience, too: Like the feverish terror of a bad dream, the show presents a disorienting, portentous landscape — with absolutely no instructions whatsoever.
Gaiman has built a career around nightmares — writing them into novels, graphic novels, and occasionally screenplays. In the book “American Gods,” he sought to restore enchantment to the banal world of rural Western capitalism — to its seedy roadside motels, dimly lit carpeted hallways, fluorescently lit superstores, and barren highways. He did so by writing a chronicle of America in which unlikely gods roamed the continent — gods brought over by the people who worshipped them, whether that was Viking explorers or the African slaves. In modern-day America, they have surprising and strange forms, but the knowledge is all there for those who can read the signs. An eccentric old charlatan named Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) is blind in one eye, causes thunderstorms, and is accompanied by crows: He is America’s Odin. A dapper, smooth-talking gentleman in a plaid suit named Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones) is America’s Anansi. Opposite them are the “new” gods, the forces that have gained power because of how humans worship today: Media (Gillian Anderson), who keeps you staring at your screen with rapt attention, and Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), a thrill-seeking teenager who is irritatingly obsessed with the cutting edge.
In Bryan Fuller’s adaptation, Gaiman’s vision becomes an immersive wonderland of extraordinary visuals and haunting music. Both Gaiman and Fuller excel at turning the horrible into the beautiful; Fuller, in “Hannibal,” took the story of a serial killer and made it into a freak show. With “American Gods,” Fuller is adapting a novel with a lot more symbolic resonance; his stunning tableaux feel rooted in something broad and meaningful. “American Gods,” book and show, are about grappling with, and for, the identity of America — warts and all. That means upending and reframing the world as we know it, to see instead the bizarre, uncomfortable magic in its disappointments and frustrations.
Shadow is our naïve guide through this world, and at times in the book and the show, his story seems less important than the world he is discovering. “American Gods” is a slower show than it needs to be; it seems as if the show is savoring the process of adaptation, reveling enthusiastically in its lush set pieces. The show has the benefit of extraordinary performers, too. McShane, who is a treasure in any production, is pitch-perfect as Mr. Wednesday — delivering saucy decrepitude and annoyingly oblique wisdom with disarming, lovable charm. Anderson has been waiting too long to play a goddess, and in her limited appearances offers a mix of bossiness and seduction to the rapt viewer. Whittle, who is largely a newcomer, struggles to shoulder all of what the show throws at him, but he’s helped out by McShane and Browning (who conveys startling depths with a look or a pout).
Still, “American Gods” is less concerned with saying something, at least in its first four episodes, than it is with conveying a mood and a landscape. It’s not necessarily bad, but you have to want to see the world rendered in this way — to see a down-on-his-luck leprechaun hitchhiking through Indiana, or a djinn driving a cab in midtown Manhattan — to stay engaged with the series. The fourth episode finally gets around to explaining things that happened in the very first, which is a long time to wait for many viewers.
But if you’re invested in this world, or want to be, “American Gods” is kind of astonishing. Fuller takes more risks than nearly anyone else on television, and at the very least, “American Gods” is different, using the violence and sex of premium cable towards exploring the mysterious underpinnings of faith. That alone sets it curiously apart.