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‘American Gods’: Faith and Fantasy Mix in Starz’s New Series

Bryan Fuller was watching a key moment from the “American Gods” finale the day after the presidential election. Like many of his fellow citizens, he felt angry, stunned and at a loss. He tweeted. He stewed.

Eventually, he says, “I got a little bored with being angry.”

Working on “American Gods,” which arrives April 30 on Starz, became “sort of a salve,” Fuller says. “The powerlessness that I felt after the election is offset in some small way by being able to work on this show and have a multicultural, multi-faith exploration of what it is to be an American citizen at a time when we’re in huge conflict with ourselves.”

As it happens, “American Gods” is the work of an immigrant: British author Neil Gaiman wrote it after he moved to America.

The Starz series and the 2001 book both depicts a quintessentially American rite of passage: the road trip. An unlikely pair — ex-convict Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) and fast-talking Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) — go on a journey that traverses the nation’s highways and byways.

As Shadow and Mr. Wednesday get to know each other — and it’s an uneasy alliance at best — the duo encounters a host of strange, desperate and vengeful characters, many of whom feel cheated or lost. A number of unsettling curveballs are thrown at Shadow during the trip, and as the story progresses, he reels from a personal tragedy that contains several weird twists of its own. But the biggest wrinkle concerns the identities of the men and women he and Mr. Wednesday encounter.

Most of the characters they meet are gods who were brought into the U.S. by immigrants from all around the world. The intensity of believers’ devotion determine whether the gods prosper, and many of those deities have fallen on hard times.

The show revolves around the premise that “if you believe in something enough, you can manifest it into reality,” Fuller explains. In manifesting this show for Starz, Fuller and fellow showrunner Michael Green weren’t afraid to take on difficult topics.

So this is probably the only TV drama — certainly the only cable drama — of the year that will introduce multiple versions of Jesus Christ. 

“There are so many different perspectives on who Jesus Christ was and is in the hearts of those who worship him, so that I think it’s interesting to say to Christians that your Jesus — pointing to one end of the room — is different from your Jesus,” says Fuller

Multiple Jesuses may be the least controversial thing in “American Gods.”

Other on-screen moments include an orgy, a slave rebellion, the hanging of an African-American man, and a tense border confrontation as desperate immigrants attempt to reach the U.S.

American Gods” is one of a number of programs (including Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”) that were developed long before the 2016 election but seem far more topical in light of its results. In Trump’s America, the show’s themes of immigration, belonging, faith and identity certainly have a new relevance. Gaiman’s novel — and the program Fuller and Green have fashioned from it — is all about what beliefs and touchstones people carry with them, whose values and communities are allowed to matter, and whose are ignored, demeaned or neglected. 

As Green puts it, “American Gods” “is not accidentally about something — it is inherently about something.”

Starz isn’t afraid of being adventurous with its scripted fare — shows as varied and subversive as “Outlander” and “Survivor’s Remorse” are evidence of that — but “American Gods” is in another category entirely.

“From day one, we went in and pitched it as a cinematically aggressive show with tonal wonkiness,” Fuller says. “There were conversations when [Starz] started to see our definition of that on the screen. There were, as in any creative relationship with your benefactors, some moments of trepidation.”

But Fuller and Green say Starz encouraged their boldness while cautioning them about not “exhausting” the audience. Fuller says he agreed with that note (most episodes clock in between 48 and 54 minutes).

“Longer is not necessarily better,” he says.

The season itself was also trimmed by two episodes. Starz ordered “American Gods” straight to series in 2015 for 10 episodes. But after the trailer was shown at San Diego Comic-Con last year, the network and the producers agreed that in order to live up to the promise of the trailer, less was probably more.

“Instead of reshooting the stuff we didn’t think we pulled off production-wise, we thought, why don’t we eliminate it?” Fuller says.

The showrunners were also on a learning curve, especially when it came to post-production. Creating the show’s ambitious images and complicated soundscapes meant lots of time in editing suites and at VFX houses.

“I got home at midnight every day,” Fuller recalls. As post-production trundled into the fall and winter, “we were looking at the scope of our finale, and we were seeing that it was going to be ridiculously expensive — and we were already over budget.”

The showrunners decided to take the episode that had been intended as the finale out of season one. The installment they cut will start a potential second season, and Fuller adds that the hour that now ends season one “ends with such a big bang that it’s worthy of being a finale.”

Both Fuller and Green have both worked quite a bit in network television, and both sounded relieved that they did not have to water down the ideas at the core of Gaiman’s book, which, at times, takes on the quality of a half-remembered dream or bittersweet fairytale. Some of what’s onscreen is provocative, but nothing in the first four episodes feels gratuitous.  

“If [viewers] are watching Starz and they’ve seen Bruce Campbell crawl up inside of a demon’s a–hole [on the ‘Evil Dead’ TV show], they’re open to different viewing experiences,” Fuller notes. And that matters, because stories like that of Bilquis — a goddess whose followers engage in an orgy — are not there simply to get attention in a crowded TV landscape, but partly to explore thoughtful ideas about need, desire and “sex positivity,” Fuller says.  

“There hasn’t been the instinct to whitewash anything or de-saturate [the story] because it is about celebrating these different cultures and people from different perspectives,” he adds. “We didn’t set out to push buttons, as much as we set out to accurately adapt the book and represent the multiculturalism” at the heart of Gaiman’s novel.

There is something deeply American about all these characters, whatever their provenance. Mr. Wednesday, Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones), Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), Mad Sweeney (a character from Irish legend played by Pablo Schreiber), the djinn who drives a cab: They are just hustlers and dreamers trying to get by in a world that isn’t really sure it has a use for them. 

Though Shadow and Mr. Wednesday’s unlikely pairing forms the core of series, each episode is opened by a “Coming to America” sequence describing the arrival of another faith or group of believers. Irish tales, Norse mythology and gods from different regions in Africa are introduced in these sequences, and characters from those scenes often re-emerge at other points in the season. When it came to getting the details of each legend and culture right, no detail was too small to escape the showrunners’ notice. 

“We drove our casting directors crazy,” says Fuller, who recounted the story of finding a key actor for a Coming to America sequence involving Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones). They wanted an actor who was from the same region as the god, who is also known as Anansi. “We ended up with this wonderful actor” who spoke the right Ghanian language for the scene, which takes place on a slave ship. 

The attention to detail was crucial, they say, because faith and religion are often deeply important to immigrants, many of whom bring little more than their beliefs when they embark new lives in a new country. “It is important to people the way food and shelter are important to people,” Fuller says.

That sentiment translates directly into what Green and Fuller have created, and perhaps the most subversive thing about “American Gods” is that it is achingly and unapologetically sincere. There are elements of epic romance and emotional aspiration woven into almost every storyline. Though the characters and the dialogue often display a self-aware wit — and many elements of the story reflect Gaiman’s laconic sense of humor — “American Gods” takes belief seriously. People’s faith in their gods — and in each other — is never treated as less than meaningful. 

“I get teary-eyed watching one of the Coming to Americas that is about Christ,” says Fuller. “I am a secularist who can imagine a lot of different scenarios in terms of what spirituality and faith are. And yet watching this sequence, I am moved by the believers in the scene witnessing their God, who is a positive God who’s defined by love and tolerance. I find that very affecting, and my Catholic upbringing still resonates very strongly. It’s nice to sort of say, ‘This is what people who have faith aspire to.’”

And yet there’s a flip side to devotion, one that also feels quite relevant to the present moment. Mr. Wednesday and most of his cohorts miss having numerous and truly devoted followers, in part because, as Fuller says (only half-jokingly), the old gods are “arguably fame whores.” 

The eight episodes of the first season trace a growing rivalry between the waning old gods and a rising set of tech-oriented gods, including Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) and Media (Gillian Anderson).

“The new gods seem appreciative to just have any attention, whereas the old gods remember what good attention was like — quality attention,” Green says. “The new gods are saying to the old gods, ‘The largest growing religion in America is atheism, so how you do you think you’re going to get along without help from us?’” 

As Fuller notes with a laugh, the new gods like Media have “shiny giveaways.” But even that growing conflict among gods has another bit relevance tucked into it. Media and Easter (Kristin Chenoweth) are women, a fact that affects how they are treated and perceived. 

“There’s a lot in the finale about kings trying to bring queens down, and the lengths fearful men will go to to dethrone a woman in power,” Fuller says.

If the decision to trim the number of episodes in the season was a challenge, the duo’s original conversations about how to adapt Gaiman’s book for the small screen were, by comparison, a breeze. They agreed on strategies from the start, and it wasn’t difficult to find motivations for many of the gods, the showrunners say. 

“It is people struggling to find their role in the universe, and that’s very relatable,” Fuller explains. “One of the things that gives it real stakes is that the old gods were very human. They’re egomaniacal and narcissistic and petty and punitive — they were more human than human. It became very easy to craft arcs for them, because they all wanted something and they weren’t getting what they wanted.” 

Fuller and Green say they hope the series attracts fans of Gaiman as well as viewers who are unfamiliar with his work — and possibly from outside their own left-leaning bubbles.

“How do we talk to the people who don’t watch John Oliver?” Fuller says. “If you’re watching John Oliver, you already agree with me.”

Ultimately, no matter the viewership, “American Gods” will stand out as an ambitious, explicit premium-cable drama made by men and women who have pondered deeply what it means to be a person of faith.

“People were attracted to this project on the actors’ side, on the writing side — on all sides — because they’d had some relationship with religion,” Green says. “Positive, negative — they’d gone through a struggle and thought about it. I don’t think people will be very interested in the show if they’ve never even considered religion before. It’s not for the apathetic.”

In her review of “American Gods,” Variety TV critic Sonia Saraiya calls it “a lush fantasy” and “a delight.”

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