In the Starz adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s strangely insightful view of American life, lore, and faith, things get insightful and… strange. For anyone who has ever read a Gaiman work, or seen one of the film adaptations (Stardust, Coraline, Mirrormask), the over-the-top exploration of Americana is exactly what you’d expect. That doesn’t make it any less interesting, thanks to strong performances from Ian McShane, Gillian Anderson, Peter Stormare, Pablo Schreiber, and a host of others.
When Shadow Moon (Rick Whittle) gets released from prison a few days early, it’s a win/lose: he’s out of prison early, but it’s because his wife died (indiscreetly) with his best friend. Fresh out of hope and faith in the purpose of his life, he’s met, several times, by the strange figure of Mr. Wednesday (McShane), who actually represents the Norse god Odin. Wednesday wants Shadow to be part of a war that’s coming, of galactic old and new gods vying for the soul of America.
While Shadow’s story is the one I found most compelling, it’s really part of an ensemble supernatural Crash-like expose of the things Americans wrestle with. Whether it’s power on behalf of Wednesday, or love and sex on the behalf of Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), Queen of Sheba, who pursues sex as worship, or technology on the part of Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), or popularity and social acceptance on behalf of Media (Gillian Anderson) … or a host of other old and new gods, the gods are restless and they want to be loved, worshipped, and attended to, even if it costs them everything.
While the show has a very serious bent – the whole universe could implode under the weight of the gods battling each other – it’s delightfully funny in various turns as well. It’s funny in the cinematography, in the characterization, in the delivery of key lines by those involved. (It’s even cleverly funny when delivery lines where a new god (Zorya Polunochnaya, played by Erika Kaar) compares kissing to blue cheese or brandy, moments before giving Shadow the moon… literally.)
In the midst of a progression through America (Wisconsin plays a role), Wednesday and Shadow discuss religion, which makes for an interesting reflection by this pastor, and this site. Wednesday rambles on about a woman who is sitting there, who thinks Jesus suffered for her sins, but why should Jesus suffer for anyone’s sins but his own Wednesday goes on to explain that there are several Jesuses because there are several needs for Jesus (the Mexican Jesus waded to the U.S. illegally, says Wednesday, for example). Suddenly, the show isn’t just about sex (there’s plenty), explosive decapitations and halved bodies (again, tons), but about a philosophical, emotional examination of the way that American culture has become far-removed from the issues that once framed it. [Even if Orlando Jones’ Mr. Nancy/Anansi is quick to point out that it’s been built, framed, structured on the back of slaves. Which is a whole ‘nother issue.]
I was unkind to the first boy who loved me; I stole a doll once from my cousin. I did my best.—Elderly Muslim woman to Anubis
But there’s more, like the elderly Muslim woman who Mr. Jacquel (Chris Obi) takes to measure, her heart versus a feather, before sending her to the afterlife. She longs to be in a happy place – not pursuing the afterlife that her father, who abused her, shares. She claims to trust Anubis/Jacquel to choose the right one for her, and his little dog shoves her through a door … even though she doesn’t know which one she’s headed for as the screen shifts.
This is the strange Gaiman world of color and flash, of thought, humor, and action. Do the gods need humans to believe to exist? Is this like Elf where a loss of faith is the same as a loss of power for the sleigh of that ancient ‘god’ Santa to rise and fly? Wednesday longs not to be forgotten; Shadow simply wants something tangible to grasp onto and believe. Both are searching for something, both want something that feels incredibly like two sides of a coin – only made more hilarious and clever thanks to the way that Gaiman’s story is adapted to the screen by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green. This is food for thought, soulful exploration of what it means to be American, faithful, even human, after all.