Right from the very first scene in American Gods it was clear to me that Bryan Fuller was exactly the wrong person to choose for this project.
Vikings punching each other in slow motion followed shortly by explosions of blood, arms and intestines flying through the air, and an unbelievably loud soundtrack ruined what should have set the tone of the show. The rest of the episode wasn’t any less incoherent; a giant crocodile bar, a leprechaun with flaring red hair, and more needless gore in the cliffhanger of the episode made for a borderline unwatchable experience, establishing this adaptation as definitively Bryan Fuller’s version of American Gods at the expense of everything else.
Most of the shows that Fuller has worked on, or spearheaded himself– Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies, Hannibal— are all shows that establish a heightened tone and sensationalized atmosphere. Subtlety is thrown out the window in favor of style, which usually serves the story.
Wonderfalls is literally about a young woman who can hear the voice of God from inanimate objects that lead her to improve the lives of others. It’s also a perfect whimsical gem of a show. Dead Like Me finds humanity in the monotony of daily life and the secretarial work of the afterlife. Pushing Daisies is one of the most colorful shows ever put on TV and it’s about a man who can bring dead people back to life by touching them. With each success, Fuller has only become more unhinged with his recent work and the praise that followed.
Will Graham is essentially clairvoyant in Hannibal— a megalomaniacal tragedy of angels, devils, and dragons, juxtaposing the ugly carcass of humanity with lavish visual feasts in the eyes of the audience. It’s grounded in reality in only the barest sense possible in the beginning, slipping further into itself over the course of its three season run. It’s also rather goofy, despite how seriously it wants you to take it.
There is no difference between these two pictures. It only makes sense that Fuller’s next project would exacerbate the worst of his storytelling habits.
Neil Gaiman’s American Gods blends mythology with the real world to make an American odyssey. There are few displays of fantastical power, colorfully lit bars or monster mansions, and when they’re there, they’re memorable and used as much as they need be. Through much of the beginning of the book, the protagonist Shadow is being pulled into a world laid over our own, unaware of what’s really going on or what he’s gotten himself involved in.
Admittedly, American Gods is visually difficult to adapt. Descriptions are going to look different to each reader, and some of the dialog and characters sound incredibly silly when read out loud. It also had a lot to explain without bludgeoning the audience with exposition in the first episode, and yet… it found a way to undercut everything it set out to do.
The magical realism found in the American Gods adaptation is on the opposite end of the scale where it should be. Here are five shows that capture some element of what American Gods failed to.
1) Carnivále (2002-2003)
HBO’s blend of the dustbowl age in early 20th century America with Biblical stories made for a perfect, unique, and unforgettable first season. “Before the beginning, after the great war between heaven and hell,” the show opens, and so it draws us into its world perfectly, using the least amount of visual effects necessary in order to tell its story. The world is presented as viscerally real, and when something strange happens, it feels enormous and mythical.
Mysticism is a very hard thing to deliver in an dramatic way, and it’s even more difficult when it already takes place in a historical setting. Carnivále balanced the two perfectly. Most of the supernatural events in American Gods feels like a joke, and America feels less of a real place and more like a set where characters jump place to place to meet the next wacky character on their list.
2 ) Fargo (2014-2017)
For a show that has (almost) nothing to do with magical realism, it captures it better than most. Heavily inspired by westerns, Americana, and morality fables, it accomplishes a sense of authenticity and scale that few shows can touch. Much like the film it’s based on, there’s a dark underbelly entangled with the seemingly ordinary world it inhabits that feels tangible and real without undermining the other half of it.
The only remotely speculative event that happens in Fargo’s run is a recurring UFO motif that appears during season 2 and is never explained. But between the visual texture, thematic richness, and tight writing, it manages to fit right in the show’s strange universe. Cutting between anachronistic visuals and maps of midwest America only undercuts the setting of American Gods.
3 ) The Exorcist (2016 –)
Set in suburban Illinois and downtown Chicago, the TV adaptation of The Exorcist carved out its own identity while staying true to its source material. It’s the most conventional choice on the list, which is why everything in it makes sense and plays out by its own internal logic. There are clearly established rules and threats to the characters that the audience accepts, even if it isn’t immediately clear why at the time.
When the scares are there, they build, and they’re incredibly effective and nerve-wracking. It also takes its time with slower character moments in-between the possessions. Frequently reminding the audience that this show is violent and unpredictable with no clear rhythm to most episodes only makes watching American Gods feel like a simultaneously monotonous and exhausting chore.
4 ) True Detective, Season One (2015)
Even before the infamous second season aired, the writing of True Detective wasn’t particularly good. What sold a lot of people on the show was the outstanding acting and directing. In just eight episodes, the same amount that American Gods had, True Detective created an arresting and hypnotizing portrait of southern Louisiana that felt expansive and threatening. The action, most famously the ending of episode 4, felt incredibly claustrophobic and realistic.
Though there no explicitly “supernatural” events, the protagonist Rust Cohle experienced hallucinations and visions that weaved a larger story of humans standing guard against the chaotic evil of the universe. Fans were certain with the nihilistic themes running through the first several episodes it would end tragically, but the ending was bittersweet, and all the more meaningful for it. Even though Shadow experiences plenty of strange visions in American Gods, they hardly ever land emotionally, with a focus on style over substance and clear separation of his point of view with the audience’s.
5) Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)
It wasn’t just the unpredictable, albeit polarizing script of the show’s third season that subverted audience expectations, it was how expertly the surrealism was crafted. From the hum of electricity in the ceiling fan as Sarah Palmer descended the stairs of her house to the lights blowing out in the finale twenty five years later, Twin Peaks planted meaning and signifiers to every facet of its visual language, creating a subterranean universe that existed in a visual medium, even without the supplementary books or material.
The key to that allowed all of this to work was successfully creating a world that existed over our own. The supernatural events were always based in some form in the characters. It was a gradual descent into madness, not beating the audience over the head constantly to remind us what we’re seeing isn’t normal. American Gods isn’t limited in the same way Twin Peaks was when it first aired, but The Return proved that limitations and patience grow greater rewards.
There are moments in American Gods where I think the show came close to achieving the tone and atmosphere the book inspired. Most notably, the side story between Salim and the Jinn was perfect… right up until the bad CGI at the end. The show also expanded on Laura’s character in the fourth episode, granting her an entire 40+ minutes focused on her perspective with less interruptive visuals… only to return to its regular tempo the next episode. When Shadow goes stares at the night sky from the Chicago rooftops it feels exactly how it looks… a particularly fake set with a blue filter and a faulty green screen.
More often then not, the visuals in the show don’t feel rich or compelling, they feel thin and glossy. It was very much a choice in the show’s inception to push the envelope when it comes to visual work on television as a way to sell audiences on this otherworldly tale, not dissimilar from the way Hannibal did. This can be seen in title sequence every episode, with loud, thundering music and neon lights burning against cultural objects, a blending of the old and new that comes at the cost of undercutting its magical realism.
It would’ve been much more difficult to drastically tone down the flare and tell the same story in a different and more compelling way, but it would’ve been all the better for it.