Neil Gaiman didn’t set out to make “American Gods” the year’s most politically relevant new TV series.
Starz’s ambitious adaptation of Gaiman’s 2001 bestseller about gods who live among us even as new forms of cultural worship leave them newly vulnerable to violence, is a strange, sprawling tapestry of a story, with an intricate mythology that weaves together warring godheads, lurid bloodshed, and potent philosophy into something that those involved say is like nothing else to grace the small screen, perhaps ever.
In its first hour alone, stranded vikings hack each other to ribbons on the shores of the New World in hopes of appeasing Odin, a sex-hungry goddess’s body swallows an unsuspecting mortal, and a deified personification of the Internet orders faceless, pixelated minions to lynch an ex-convict. On second thought, “strange” doesn’t quite cover it.
And yet, “American Gods,” which premieres April 30 at 9 p.m., also seems to have presciently, if inadvertently, captured a national zeitgeist that emerged in full force only after production wrapped in early November last year.
“This is a big, mad drama about America, and the nature of America,” explains Gaiman, 56, speaking by phone from a New York junket, of helping to bring what he’s always seen as a pro-immigration narrative to television. It arrives at a time when politics here and abroad has been upended by anti-immigrant populism, epitomized by Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House, Nigel Farage’s Brexit movement in the UK, and now Marine Le Pen’s ascendant candidacy in France. “The show is ultimately about the fact that everybody comes here from somewhere and brings baggage with them in some point in time or other,” he says.
“American Gods” posits that gods are physical manifestations of belief, many of whom — like Odin (Ian McShane), the Queen of Sheba (Yetide Badaki), and Anansi (Orlando Jones) — came to America long ago, empowered by the faith and fidelity of immigrants preserving their cultural tenets in a new land. In the modern era, however, faith in these deities has waned along with their power; and the emergence of new gods — rooted in technology, consumerism, and mass media — has raised the specter of a holy war like no other. Fearing unwanted competition for the attention of mortals, the new gods — including Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) and Media (Gillian Anderson) — want to drive out any trace of the old. Already assimilated into American culture as they are, the old gods find themselves facing a threat all too applicable to contemporary audiences: that the land they call home is suddenly, violently rejecting their right to remain.
“The world has changed,” says Gaiman, who was born in England but now lives near Minneapolis and is married to Boston pop provocateur Amanda Palmer. “Things I didn’t think were in any way contentious when I wrote them — like the fact that America is a huge country made up of immigrants, and that everyone who came here came from somewhere, and that the people of America are a lot of different races, all that stuff — that seemed to me so utterly non-contentious, now feels like we’re making a huge and important statement that resonates beyond just America.”
To Gaiman — who saw a previous attempt at translating his work to television, on HBO, fall apart a few years ago — every delay in adapting “American Gods” feels in hindsight like something of, well, a godsend. “I’m really glad it isn’t out a couple of years ago on a different channel and that that process died, and we’re doing it again here,” he says. “This feels like the right time for it.”
In working with co-showrunners Bryan Fuller (who created NBC’s “Hannibal”) and Michael Green (who wrote this spring’s superhero pic “Logan”) to chart an ambitious arc for the series that he says could fill four full seasons beyond the initial eight episodes Starz has ordered, Gaiman sensed early on that he’d finally found the right team to bring “American Gods” to the small screen.
His optimism only grew as Fuller and Green — as well as the cadre of powerhouse actors they recruited to fill out the series’ ensemble cast, including Ricky Whittle as protagonist Shadow Moon, an ex-con grieving the death of his wife Laura (Emily Browning) — all came to echo an awareness of the series’ main ideas.
Gaiman is no stranger to adaptations. A prolific author whose best-known works include “The Sandman” comic book series, “Coraline,” “Stardust,” “Neverwhere,” and “The Graveyard Book” (which received both the Carnegie and Newbery Medals), he’s shepherded plenty of his projects toward the big and small screens.
“Neil’s not precious about his work,” says McShane, speaking by phone from New York. “But obviously, the book is very special to him, and in Bryan and Michael, he found two guys who could really expand his vision to the screen.”
McShane was personally drawn both by the chance to play a complex antihero and the opportunity to tell a positive story about immigration’s formative role in America.
“I’ve played a brothel keeper, I’ve played a lovable rogue, I’ve played a king — it was about time I played a god,” he says, laughing. “It’s just a natural progression.”
The actor, 74, says the plight of old gods like Odin — who travels incognito across the country under the alias of Mr. Wednesday, enlisting Shadow as his driver and bodyguard — is comparable to the broader difficulties audiences might face in maintaining an appreciation for history, heritage, and diversity amid fast-moving technological innovations and isolating political movements.
“When immigrants first came to this country, they came with hope and love — they despaired about the place they were, which is why they emigrated in the first place — but the immigrants were full of hope and brought their good gods with them,” he says. “What my character of Mr. Wednesday is saying is that people have lost sight of what originally they brought with them. It’s not that technology is a bad thing, but if you don’t look up and around all the time, you’ll lose sight of what everything is really about.”
Whittle, 35, speaking by phone, agrees with McShane that “American Gods” is most grandly about systems of belief.
“Be it biblical gods, mythical gods, be it your favorite musician, TV show, actor, favorite song, or even your iPhone, whatever it is that gets you through that day is the most important thing,” says the actor. “And just because you believe in a particular god, that doesn’t make my god any less real or less powerful. We all have struggles and battles, but you need to believe in something, because life without belief is a very empty life indeed.”
To Whittle, who is black, the setup has yielded rich ideas of multiculturalism and respect for difference that he says, especially accentuated by the diversity of the series’ cast, couldn’t be better timed.
“Unless you’re native to America, by which I mean you’re Native American, we’re all immigrants,” he says. “I’m an immigrant, so’s Ian McShane — the president of America and his many wives are immigrants. People came from all over the world to America, and it’s here that we grew our traditions, our cultures, our values, our flavors, and our gods. That’s what’s made America so great.”
Browning, 28, says the series aims to explore ideas more than push answers. Her character, for example, represents a more complex form of female antihero than Browning has seen on television before.
“This show has a lot of female characters who are not on either end of the spectrum of heroes and villains, who are all somewhere stumbling around in the middle,” she says. “For a long time, I don’t think we saw female characters like that.”
Gaiman is delighted “American Gods” provides a platform for characters of all backgrounds and ethnicities. Hopefully, he says, audiences will respond to the series with similar enthusiasm.
“Finding out what people think of it, that has me genuinely excited,” he says. “I wrote a novel almost 20 years ago, and now we’ve adapted that novel. We have the first eight episodes going out, and it feels more relevant; it feels more important than it did when when I first made it.”
On Starz, April 30 at 9 p.m.
Starring: Ricky Whittle, Emily Browning, Crispin Glover, Bruce Langley, Yetide Badaki, Pablo Schreiber, Ian McShaneIsaac Feldberg can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @i_feldberg.