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American Gods – Season 1, Episodes 1-2 Review

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★★★★★

In Hannibal, showrunner Bryan Fuller was all about the devil in the detail. That detail most often involving gorgeously photographed gourmet dinners and artfully eviscerated corpses. And that devil, of course, being Dr Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), a sophisticated charmer and an arch-manipulator so consistently a step ahead of everyone else you suspected he was omniscient.

In Fuller's latest venture American Gods, that detail now focuses on such trashy Americana as a dive bar shaped like a giant gator mouth; the hidden mechanisms of everyday objects (as shown through impressive macro photography of a jukebox and door-lock in these first two episodes); and some gloriously ultraviolent tableaux. During the first episode's 813 AD-set prologue, for example, we witness a blood-drenched Viking battle in which a severed, sword-clutching arm arcs through the air in elegant slo-mo. At one point, in a "Did that just happen?" meta-moment (we rewound it to check), the blood-trailing limb sails right in front of the picture's black-barred widescreen framing. This is a show where the borders of reality itself are porous.

As for this show's devil? Well, in fact quite different from Hannibal. Despite also being a sophisticated charmer, in his own words "a hustler, a swindler, a cheater and a liar" who comes in the perfectly cast form of Ian McShane, he’s rakish and mischievous, with a taste for blondes and a talent for a delicious turn of phrase; McShane relishes the role like a crow gorging on freeway roadkill. "I was merely passing the time as instinct indicated," he drily mock-protests when Shadow (Ricky Whittle) returns from his wife's funeral to find a naked young woman in Wednesday's motel bed. The glass-eyed Mr Wednesday's true nature isn't hard to guess (and if you're familiar with Neil Gaiman's source novel then you already know), but he certainly has a better reason for seeming omniscient than Mikkelsen's Dr Lecter ever did.

Though it's adapted from very different source material, and co-written with Michael Green (who worked on Heroes and Smallville), American Gods feels like a stylistic sequel to Hannibal, with the first two episodes directed by one-time Hannibal regular David Slade. Except this eight-episode story's supernatural overtones feel considerably more appropriate to Fuller's baroque, nightmarish-operatic flourishes than Hannibal's serial-killer antics which, quite frankly, became so overwrought they got silly.

Here the dream sequences are more epic and portentous, involving visions of petrified forests carpeted with human skeletons and ceilinged by the vast, cold cosmos. The blood flows just as prettily as it did in Hannibal, but even more freely, whether gushing from bisected Dark Age warriors or dripping from an ancient slaughterhouse hammer. Desire, too, can be just as deadly. One jaw-dropping scene in the opening episode, as erotic as it is terrifying, sees Mad Men's Joel Murray enjoying the best sex of his life with mysterious seductress Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) when she hungrily swallows him whole, in a manner that would give even David Cronenberg nightmares. Very sexy nightmares, but nightmares nonetheless.

Fuller's favoured atmosphere of insidious doom is the ideal match for Gaiman's source text — arguably his best novel — which concerns a clandestine, pantheistic war between culturally conjured entities both ancient and modern. And while central performer Whittle, formerly of Hollyoaks via The 100, is an imposing, intense presence as burly ex-con Shadow, your attention will more likely be drawn to the guest actors filling the ranks of the titular deities. Joining McShane we have Gillian Anderson as new god Media, doing an uncanny impression of Lucille Ball ("Look at you all in high-def," she purrs at Shadow from a grainy black-and-white TV picture); The Wire's Pablo Schreiber as Mad Sweeney, a pugilistic, gold-conjuring leprechaun taller even than Shadow; Peter Stormare as the gruff, greasy Czernobog, who pines for the days when stoving in the heads of killing-floor cattle was an art form; and Orlando Jones as Mr Nancy, who's given a memorably explosive prologue scene on a 17th-century slave ship for the second episode.

This is a show where the borders of reality itself are porous

There is a lot going on and much darting about, so those not already familiar with American Gods may find it occasionally bewildering (though it has nothing on Legion when it comes to wilful weirdness). But it's never less than compelling, offering an innovative, fantastical skew on the American immigrant narrative, and a visual feast throughout. If Fuller and Green maintain the sky-high quality of these first two episodes, this will be something very special.

American Gods airs on Starz in the US Sunday nights starting 30 April and on Amazon Video in the UK from 1 May.

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