From its earliest mid-production shots and promotional material, the TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman's American Gods has kindled more than a few embers of faith.
I keenly recall discovering the original novel for the first time, back during my earliest years of university, when I at long last had a -very little- sum of expendable cash floating about my person; enough to feed my consistent obsession for the absurd and fantastical that has consumed me for as long as I've had a mind to dream with...
American Gods came hot on the heels of Neverwhere for me; a very different beast not only from that most Kafka-esque of gems, but all of Gaiman's work: darker, grittier, bloodier; more grounded in traditions of horror than arguably anything else he'd ever written (barring, perhaps, a handful of short stories, one or two comics). A tale of violence and need and sacrifice; of blood and death and mourning, the tone and structure of the tale reminded more than a little of the many, many Clive Barker books that were my bibles of the era (and, in certain instances, remain so), the story nevertheless also maintained a certain abstruse whimsy; a sense of the mythological and folkloric that is very, very difficult to pin down and define, much less capture in another medium.
The kind of work that was almost pre-destined to snare my attention; to reach its parasitic tendrils into my mind and find itself willing anchor.
Like most of Gaiman's works, its specifics are hard to express without descending into what sounds like a lunatic's wall-scratched poetry:
Released from jail early to attend to his late wife's funeral, the unfeasibly named Shadow Moon encounters the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday (guess who?); a grifter, a liar, a cheat, a scoundrel...a man who seems to be able to make miracles and keep company with entities beyond easy imagining. Drawn into a game of predatory, parasitic metaphysics, in which old gods war with the new for the collective soul of humanity, Shadow finds himself learning far, far more about the world and his species than he ever wished, and more about himself than he can ever forget.
Given that the promotional and pre-release material for the TV show was so good (that most miraculous of phenomena; a screen adaptation of a beloved book in which EVERY element feels ineffably right; every set, every shot, every member of the cast...looking as though the creators bored open my skull and lowered the cameras in to film the projections on its interior) it was with more than a little trepidation that I sat down to watch the first episode.
Tone. Tone was always going to be the fulcrum; the deciding factor. The book is...bizarre, even by Gaiman's standards; at once so grim and grimey you can taste the blood and dust in your mouth, yet so mythic and ascended you could easily start painting or singing your own miracles from nothing at all, it's a difficult and chimerical beasty to pin down. The show could have so easily failed by favouring one element over the other, or not marrying them fluidly enough, resulting in something Frankensteinian, schizophrenic.
The result is a genuine labour of love; one that embraces the ostensibly incongruous elements of the book (the first episode alone features scenes of ancient Nords engaging in ritual sacrifice to summon their patron, scenes of prison-yard politics, a man in mourning for his lost wife and the life he dreamed, bar brawls, vistas of US landscape that seem more unlikely and miraculous than the magic on display, cons and tricks and traps, a bellicose leprechaun, shamanistic visions, scenes of death and resurrection, beatings, maulings; a goddess that vignally devours her devotees...) and marries them to a tone of simultaneous weight and irreverence; there is humour here, amidst the blood and the misery, the despair and breaking bones, but humour that exists as an undercurrent, of a similar kind that is found in the likes of Fight Club or Robocop; not overt, not sign-posted by idiot musical cues or characters more or less winking at the camera; this is gallows humour of the most bone-yard species, the kind of yucks that Christ might have had upon the cross, contemplating the absurdity of his situation (or the Devil might have had at his expense).
The filming and construction of the episode nears David Lynch levels of artistry. Every scene, every moment, is framed with a painter's eye, even the violence, gore and grotesquery (which is obscenely and delightfully plentiful) rendered with precision and deliberation, every spray and splatter intended to create particular compositions on the screen (a notable moment of carnage sees some arcs and jets of claret trespassing into the blackness bounding the screen).
Even so, this is brutality; the episode makes no bones about its violence, not diluting or diminishing it in the manner of a standard fantasy; here, wounds weep and leave scars, bones splinter and leave sceptic shards in the surrounding meat. The notion of blood sacrifice as the ultimate pleasure of ancient deities is consistent throughout, pain and death the sweetmeats of expression and faith on which they feed. And humanity, being dutifully lamb-like, is more than happy to butcher itself for them.
Notable moments include the gratuitous carnage of the aforementioned Nords, who, having found themselves stranded on some anonymous and wretched beach of the “new world” that will eventually become the USA, turn on themselves and one another in grizzly rituals of mutilation and combat in order to draw the singular eye of their patron and summon the winds that will bear them back home, an incident towards the end of the episode in which Shadow encounters one of the new “gods” fast attaining dominance in humanity's collective imagination and is beaten almost to death by its faceless vassals (vassals which are themselves graphically torn to shreds by forces unknown) and arguably the most distressing scene in the entire show, which involves the seduction of a lonely and horny old man, the woman he regards as the very embodiment of fortune and beauty demanding to be worshiped as they couple, names and words of reverence falling from his lips that he can't possible know as she swells to consume his body, drawing him deeper and deeper into her as a snake devours its victims, her supplicant giving himself willingly, ecstatically, to this communion, though it is clearly agonising.
In an era of high deviance and invention when it comes to US network TV, American Gods has already distinguished itself as a beast apart; it is very, very difficult indeed to compare or contrast it to anything...it sits within no particular genre, will appeal to no particular audience, but exercises so many layers and depths and elements, suspending them with the grace of a master plate-spinner, it is certain to entrance as many as it will repel.
Absurd, deviant, transgressive and mesmerisingly beautiful, this is everything I ask for and demand from media: to not patronise or condescend, but to unsettle and disturb; to arouse and move and inspire.
My only prayer now is that the rest of the series collects on this most divine promise.