'American Gods' Primer: Why You Should Be Excited For Starz's New Fantasy Series

A storm is coming. The gods are restless. The battle between the past and the future is upon us.

The long-anticipated adaptation of Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods is finally landing on April 30, 2017 on Starz and it's about damn time. This best-selling fantasy story has been brought to life by series co-creator and showrunner Bryan Fuller, geek royalty who is no stranger to macabre humor and mind-bending visual storytelling (Hannibal and Pushing Daisies, anyone?). The pedigree of fellow showrunner Michael Green (fresh off co-writing Logan), the involvement of Gaiman himself, and a cast ordained by the gods ensures that both book readers and newcomers have a wild ride ahead.

American Gods is a twist on the gritty fantasy genre that forces its characters to live in a moral grey area – it's certainly going to appeal to Game of Thrones fans. Taking a story about a war brewing between supernatural beings and turning it into a culturally relevant story about modern day America, American Gods manages to feel real and makes fantasy almost relatable...before slapping you across the face with a big dose of man-eating goddesses and angry hammer wielding eastern European boogeymen.

If you're not convinced to give this series a shot...well, that's why I'm here. Let's break down everything you need to know.

[NOTE: This article is written from the perspective of an avid fan of the book. There will be no direct show spoilers.]

This is Not Your Typical Fantasy

Spoiler alert: there are gods. Lots of them. Mythology-based, sacrificed-to, eat-your-heart, worshipped-for-centuries, gods. While this story won't feature any battles on Mount Olympus, there is a war brewing...but think more backwoods America and less Westeros. The gods of myth and religion in American Gods are, for lack of a better word, real. They wear normal, albeit sometimes eccentric clothes, they have to make a living, and they lead normal lives, no matter how many goats and virgins were bled in their names. Most of these gods have been in America for centuries, carried over by the immigrants to the new world, and they have long since traded in their theatrics.

Don't mistake "normal" lives for boring, though. American Gods is still a fantasy story, and super-cool, super-weird things happen, even without dragons and orcs. What makes this story so unique and different from traditional fantasy is its mundane setting. Gaiman manages to build an elaborate network of gods and conflict right in the middle of America's heartland, hidden from our view. The path to meet these gods and learn about their conflict is more "twisted buddy road" trip and less Fellowship of the Ring. The setting is familiar, so it's the characters who make this story fantastical. Think of this otherworldly battle as a gang turf war, but the gangs are all-powerful deities and the turf is the whole of America...and none of its citizens even remotely aware of what is going on.

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The Old Gods and the New Gods

American Gods is all about a competition of relevance. We can divide the cast into two categories of gods: the old gods, brought over in the hearts and traditions of those who have come to America over the centuries, and the new gods, created by the ideas that the modern American culture values most, like money, celebrity, technology, and media. Gods are brought to life and destroyed based on the fervor and passion of their followers. If people stop worshipping a god and stop passing down the traditions that honor them, that god dies.

The opposite is also true. When a group of people put a lot of love, thought, and value into an idea, that idea can evolve into a deity. In modern day America, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't pray to the powers-that-be every time the buffering ring of death appears on whatever YouTube video is viral that day. Beyond the internet and TV, think of how much passion is behind the pro-gun movement. Over the last 16 years, while American Gods has sat comfortably on our shelves, social media has ignited passion in things that go beyond "pro" and "against," teetering into the realm of need and would-kill-for. With the addition of a "god of guns," the show's New Gods will reflect the obsessions of 2017, expanding the original concept from the novel.

American Gods is not with out its humor and irony. Without the pomp and circumstance that their homelands hold, many of these gods and folk tales have gone from god-like to, well, your immigrant grandmother that likes to talk about the "old country." However, instead of her home village sauce recipe, she is talking about all the blood that used to be sacrificed in her name. Take for instance, a group of Egyptian gods still getting their organ fix by running a funeral home in Illinois, or Mad Sweeny (Pablo Schrieber), a foul mouthed leprechaun that can throw back a drink and has a proficiency for gold coin tricks, or Czernobog (Peter Stormare), an eastern european god that is as excited talking about the old days of bashing brains with his giant hammer as an aging former football player talking about his best touchdown passes.american gods primer 4

There's a War Coming

As the saying goes, "out with the old." The rise in a culture void of traditions from the "old world" has left these great mythological juggernauts, from Loki to Annubis, from a leprechaun to the Queen of Sheba, weak and living off scraps. Some of these gods, so desperate to stay alive, find themselves in professions that inspire worship, even if it is fleeting: fortune telling, stripping, and prostitution.

So, is war necessary to regain their power? Some of the old gods don't think so, fearing that, with their weakening powers, war will take them off life-support and flat-line them. However, even though the New Gods (seemingly) hold all of the cards, they want to make sure that no one else is ever invited to the poker table again.

The Old Gods may be floundering, but they have thousands of years of history and there is strength in that kind of historical constitution. Although feeling cocky in a country built on the bigger, the better, the faster, and the stronger, the New Gods don't necessarily have a long shelf life. (The Golden Age of the Railways, anyone?) Tobacco, cotton, iron, the steam-engine...they wouldn't be old gods, but they certainly aren't new. They came and went in the blink of an eye compared to the life of someone like Ra. Things are only moving faster. New Gods in the modern age might not even make it to puberty. Imagine if video game consoles had gods (maybe they will). Atari is long dead while Playstation and Xbox reign supreme, but what is going to happen to them in the age of VR? Wam, bam, thank you ma'am.

Tradition pulls focus from innovation, and the New Gods thrive on the cutting edge. The Old Gods still existing and still pulling in some form of worship, even if it is dwindling, is an insult to these adolescent Gods, who like any teenager, want to prove that their generation is better than the one before them. However, Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) is determined to rally the old gods and show these new young punks how things were done in less civilized times.

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Our Main Character

Unless you have an overinflated ego and fancy yourself godlike in nature, you are probably wondering who we mere mortals can relate to in this mythical battle. Enter Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle).

Shadow is a criminal at the end of a prison sentence, ready to embrace the quiet life with his loving wife Laura (Emily Browning). In an unfortunate turn of events, Shadow is released early due to his wife's sudden death. On the flight home, Shadow meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, a cryptic con artist that Shadow knows better than to trust immediately. Mr. Wednesday needs a muscle man and Shadow needs a new life. This turns out to be one of the most fantastically screwed-up meet-cutes this side of Oedipus and Jocasta, setting a broken down criminal, ironically pet-named 'Puppy' by his late wife, and a god with an axe to grind into a not-quite-friendship, where neither party ever reveals more than they have to and you are never quite sure what in the hell is going on. Mr. Wednesday keeps Shadow (and us) in the dark just enough to pique his interest, but not scare him away.

Shadow is our eyes and ears through this strange American road trip, never quite sure what is going on and what he has gotten himself into. Having spent years on the inside, he is a perfect neutral party, with little connection to modern technology, and no sense of home. An intimidating man to look at, Shadow tries to maintain a level "I just work for the guy" mentality, but after a series of strange encounters (and some visits from his, is-she-or-isn't-she dead wife), Shadow becomes our avatar as we journey beyond the veil, where you never know if the person you are talking to is friend or foe, human or god.

Shadow may have just gotten out of prison, but working with gods isn't exactly the Garden of Eden, and meeting 3,000 year old deities is just the start. Shadow feels the ever-present looming of "the storm" coming, even without Mr. Wednesday's reminders, and somewhere in the midst of things like meeting Easter herself and fighting a leprechaun, Shadow's blurring line between reality and fantasy continues to fade as he begins to face just as many riddles in his own dreams as he is riding around in the god-filled American midwest. Shadow never knows more than we do, and is constantly caught off guard whether it be from the government-looking goons of the new gods trying to get him, or a strong buffalo that keeps trying to talk to him. He is figuring everything out along with us, and there is a lot to figure out.

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What’s Being Adapted Here?

Let's get technical. American Gods is, first and foremost, a fantasy novel. For those who have read, or are planning to read the book, season one of the show will cover the first third of the book, with the whole novel weighing in at about 600 pages. The rest of the story, as well as Gaiman's Anansi Boys (which is set in the same world), will be adapted in later seasons before the show moves on to all new material. At Comic Con last year, Gaiman promised fans that if you loved something in the book, "you'll see it in the show." Gaiman, Fuller, and Green have also promised surprises for long time fans of the story.

Throughout the discussions about how the book will be split, it has been stated several times that the second season will cover the "Lakeside" portion of the book. For people unfamiliar with the book, this is a natural break in the story. From Shadow's release from prison, to coping with the death of his wife, to meeting gods, to being confronted with his dead(?) wife, to crazy dreams, and getting cornered by New Gods, the first third of the book is a fast and wild ride. However, at 600 pages, the story is bound to take a breath somewhere. Not to say that the weird stuff stops, quite the contrary, but where Fuller and Green have decided to split the story  s where we start to find Shadow more aware of what is going on, more comfortable in his role, and finally able to delve deeper into his strange dreams and his not-so-deceased wife.

Think of him as Harry Potter, in his first year in the wizarding world: everything is crazy and exciting and magical and new, but in his second year, everything is still crazy and exciting and magical, but it isn't new. Except Mr. Wednesday doesn't exactly have the same warmth that Dumbledore and Hagrid have, and well, Shadow Moon isn't exactly and innocent eleven year old boy.

But wait, there's more! Although American Gods is not a book series, it does have a sequel....of sorts. Anansi Boys follows the canon of events of American Gods. Anansi, or Mr. Nancy (played by Orlando Jones), a West African trickster god that often takes the form of an itsy-bitsy spider, is one of the most colorful and interesting characters in the first book and the second novel follows his lineage. Even though there may not be other books following the stories of the rest of the cast of characters, by including Anansi Boys in the adaptation, the show opens up the possibility that we could dig deeper into some of the other rich stories that these gods are sure to have. It will be interesting to see which gods become fan favorites during the first season and if that is going to influence the "new material" that we have been promised.

The ending of the novel leaves you wanting to push forward into the aftermath, which is why Gaiman teasing new material is so enticing. You can't have a war without fallout, but the places and characters in the book entices us to follow the story outward as well. We are actively following the old gods throughout he book, but we only get glimpses of what is going on with the new gods. It would be interesting to follow Technical Boy or Media home for the night, and see the fight from their perspective.

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Neil Gaiman 101

It is almost disrespectful to discuss so much of this fantasy world without talking about the man behind the veil: Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is not unfamiliar to having his work adapted and neither are you. Specializing in fantasy, mythology, and the kind of quirk that Tim Burton misplaced somewhere in the '90s, Gaiman is behind the novels that inspired Stardust and Coraline, as well as Good Omens, which he co-authored with the late great Terry Pratchett and has been picked up by Amazon for a limited series due out in 2018.

A prolific writer, Gaiman is also, and perhaps more notably, a heavy hitter in the comic world, having written the (greatest!) comic book series (of all time!Sandman, which has also long sought an adaption of it's own. It was in the pages of Sandman, that Gaiman created the character of Lucifer, later expanded upon by comic book writer Mike Carey and adapted for the Fox TV show that has just been renewed for a third season. You may not know it, but chances are strong that you've encountered Gaiman's work and characters and work at some point. 

American Gods is perhaps Gaiman's most famous novel, a story that is huge in nature but feels very intimate on the page, populated with incredible characters. The quest to adapt American Gods has hit several road blocks over the years, mainly due to creative differences between writers, studios, and Gaiman himself (this was going to be an HBO series at one point). However, as many devoted fans of Gaiman will agree, it is better to wait than to have it done poorly. It certainly looks like American Gods is getting the treatment that it needs and the respect that a storyteller like Gaiman deserves.american gods primer 5

The Importance of the American Setting

"This is the only country in the world that worries about what it is."  -Mr. Wednesday

The best explanation for why American Gods takes place in America is simple: the story literally couldn't take place anywhere else. A large reason for that is the age-old saying that America is a melting pot. People were stepping on Native American territory for centuries, and slowly the "New World" became a collection of rebels, rejects, and refugees from all over the world. Even if you see America as a Christian nation, is Mexican-American Jesus the same as French-American Jesus? What about Russian Orthodox versus Roman Orthodox? Is Satan the same to a Satanist as he is to a Baptist? What about folklore? What about polytheistic religions? Every culture believes differently, every belief created a different god, and only in America can you find all of them, and only in Pantheon-less America are these culturally rich heavy hitters dying out in favor of entertainment news.

Where other countries are culturally rich, America is culturally abundant. We are the appetizer sampler of human history. These gods were brought over in the hearts and traditions of the immigrants and refugees, but there are no historical temples and daily reminders of these deities. Walk down the streets of Rome or Athens in 2017 and you are still surrounded by images and reminders of faith, both old and new. Try thinking about mythology, folklore, and religion while bathed in the neon lights of Time Square.

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It Can (and Should) Get Political

A story about immigrants and cultural diversity set in the heartland of modern day America...this could get tricky.

Whether it is by coincidence or god-like intervention, the long journey to see American Gods adapted has forced it into the era of travel bans, refugees, and border walls. Published in 2001, American Gods is more relevant now than it was at its inception, and there is not snowball's chance in hell that this won't be a topic of conversation moving forward. Gaiman wrote about people worshipping the internet in 2001, five years before Twitter and nine years before Instagram. In 2017, even the president of the United States is a sheep to the internet god. Between hacking, e-mails, and cyber bullying, these "new gods" have more power now than they did at the turn of the millennium, which will definitely up the stakes in the coming war of old and new.

Fans of the book will already note the appearance of Technical Boy in the trailer for the show. Written as an over weight, unattractive, stereotypical hacker in the late 90s, Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), is now a vape smoking Silicon Valley hipster. Our obsession with technology hasn't only grown since the original publication in 2001, but it is gotten sexier, and more irresistible.

Gaiman has also stated that it was important to him that no "white-washing" happened in the casting for the show. Not only would it not make sense to have a show about America's different cultures not actually reflect those cultures, but the story itself deals with both racial divides and acceptance, a subject that is sure to be catalyzed by the current American social climate. Native Americans took on the American oil corporations in an almost real life example of Neil Gaiman's fight between the old and the new. Where goddesses were once worshipped for their fertility and ability to bring life, women in America are marching on Washington for equal respect. American Gods highlights our differences, but also emphasizes everyone's right to be here. Different heritages and races aren't fighting one another, they are trying to join together against a greater evil.

American Gods isn't a piece of entertainment trying to bank on the tensions currently going on in the world. Neil Gaiman was an immigrant writing a story about immigration in the late 90s. It is an adaptation that has been trying to find its footing for years, and if anything, the coincidence of the show premiering in the midst of heightened intolerance in America just proves the need for a show of this kind. The focus of the story is America. Not one part of America. Not suburban or urban, not wealthy or poor, not the north or the south, but America as a whole. And America as a whole is everyone.