I was disappointed by the pilot episode of 'American Gods', but I think it demonstrates a lot of promise. It left me feeling confused about the nature of the world. How much is a dream? How much is a story we are being told through a framing-device? Or, is all of this real?
The thing about these questions, is that they are the same questions that Shadow is asking himself. And maybe that is the point. A more conventional pilot would be taking the time to introduce characters and making sure we like them. That we are invested. 'American Gods' is trying to knock you on your ass, though.
We start the episode with a prologue that is completely over-the-top. Blood spills by the gallon, arrows pin-cushion bodies, and limbs fly through the air holding swords. Is this happening because the voice-over narrator is telling us a legend that is larger than life? Or is he telling us the secret, and crazy, history of the real America we never knew about? I don't feel like the show wants me to ask these questions. It feels like I am supposed to be awed, excited, or repulsed by the prologue. Instead, I was confused.
Once we are with Shadow, my confusion multiplied. He sees visions and has bizarre dreams. I have no sense if this is normal for him, or something that started the day we joined him. He doesn't seem alarmed by it, but Shadow is unflappable. He doesn't rise to provocation, and his day has to get really bad before his cool facade cracks.
I like that the pilot trusts us to draw our own conclusions about Shadow, but he is an audience surrogate. We could bond with him more easily if he wanted answers as badly as we do. Instead, he is long-suffering and cool. I like that Shadow is smart. I think Ricky Whittle is doing something quiet and interesting, but Shadow should be our touchstone. I feel like there is no ground for me to get my balance on.
He becomes easier to connect with in the bar, but I find the set too over-the-top to invest in. The giant crocodile mouth is arresting and very cool. I love the light-fixture teeth. But no small business can afford this custom-made bar. This is supposed to be a small-town dive bar? It looks like a themed restaurant from DisneyLand. Shadow's transition in the scene salvages it for me, but I was so boggled by the setting that I never fully connected. I love the portrayal of Mad Sweeney and the coin tricks that he does. He feels right at home in this world, and his strait-forward attitude made me sure that he is exactly what he says he is. A leprechaun.
Ian McShane is also a delight. Mr. Wednesday is mysterious, determined, and completely untrustworthy. But he has so much charisma and charm that you want to overlook his con-man veneer. His connection to Shadow feels too superficial to me to justify how quickly Shadow agrees to work for him, though.
That brings me to the pace of the episode, which is breathless. Shadow has no time to react to the mounting weirdness around him, and so I wondered what I was supposed to feel as I followed his story. Is he angry with Mad Sweeney for mocking his dead wife, or has the day finally caught up with him? Does he want to know how to do the coin trick bad enough to beat Sweeney bloody? Shadow is too hard to read, because we never spend the time with him to establish a baseline. Instead, we hop from plot-moment to plot-moment.
That said, I think the show is beautiful. The dreamscapes are haunting. The effects are bold and over-the-top. The world of American Gods is visually loud, but also filled with actual music. There is a near-constant underscore that invests the show with emotion, and keeps the tone heightened. The visuals and the music mesh together to create a singular world. This is a strong element of the show, but cannot compensate for the emotionally-rudderless story. There is no gravity in this world. I don't know what I am meant to feel, and I am left confused.
There are many great things about the storytelling, and we discuss those in our podcast episode, but the pilot is flawed. This is not a fatal problem, though. Pilots are usually the worst example of what a show will become. Trust the writers, actors, and producers. There is greatness ahead. The world will cohere and balance is achieved. Just not here and not yet.