What Is American Gods? Everything You Need to Know If You Haven’t Read the Book
A battle is coming to Starz this weekend, but if you’re not a fan of Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel, you might not quite know what you’re in for.
While we could rattle off the general idea of the highly anticipated series for you, we’re going to let star Bruce Langley, who essentially plays the god of technology, sum it up for you better than we ever could:
“The basic idea: Peoples’ beliefs calcify into gods, and we take those gods with us when they believe in them, and they walk around as actual people if enough people believe in them. When we take them somewhere, for example America, a nation of immigrants, if you stop believing in them, they get abandoned and have to try and find a way to survive. That’s the basic premise—a nation of immigrants, filled with these old gods who’ve lost their belief and they’re trying to get by. That’s Mr. Wednesday, Ian McShane’s character, and his lot.”
“Meanwhile, we are now currently worshiping many of these new things—media, technology, putting all of our energy into new things. These new gods are monopolizing peoples’ beliefs and essentially killing off the old gods. The story focuses on Shadow Moon, Ricky Whittle’s character, who’s released a little bit early from prison and is essentially enrolled by Mr. Wednesday as his bodyguard, his muscle, and he’s taken further and further into this upcoming battle between the old gods and the new.”
It would be very easy to stop there, because that’s really the story. But the beauty of American Gods is that it’s a whole lot more than that.
“The elevator pitch is Clash of the Titans by way of The Grifters,” executive producer Bryan Fuller told E! News when we sat down with him and fellow EP Michael Green. “I think we’re making a show about faith and characters asking the question of what their role is in the universe, and what their responsibility is to themselves and to others as a species, which is a question that I think all of us in America and all over the world should be asking much more of ourselves.”
Fuller describes the show as an exploration of of the things that drive us as a country, especially in terms of what we believe in and what we focus on. The “American” in American Gods is incredibly important to the story the show is telling. Or maybe more accurately, it is the story.
“To me, the simplest way to explain the show is it’s an examination of what it means to be an American, and what the experiment of America is, and checking in with it at this point in its history,” says Pablo Schreiber, who plays the leprechaun Mad Sweeney.
And Jonathan Tucker, who plays Low Key Lyesmith, one of Shadow’s fellow inmates, calls it “an immigrant story on steroids.”
“It is a blazing combination of things you might know from Black Mirror or Twin Peaks, but it’s an immigrant story,” he says. “What did we bring to these shores that we now call America? What traditions stayed? What new traditions have we brought to it? And how does that concoction find itself in this world right now?”
Yetide Badaki, who plays the powerfully sexy goddes Bilquis (and gets one hell of an intro scene), says that since she is an immigrant who became a US citizen just three years ago, the immigration story was something she really jumped at the chance to play, along with the chance “to maybe remind people that yes, if you go back far enough, everybody came from somewhere.”
But of course, the “Gods” part of the title is important as well, and no matter what you believe or don’t believe or what religion you subscribe to, it’s hard not to connect to the battle between the old and the new, especially as we watch the show on a screen, while probably staring at another screen.
“The thing I connect with the most is the idea that the show is asking us all to pay attention to where we put our energy,” Schreiber tells us. “The tagline is what do you worship, but worship can take many forms, you know. And at its essence, worship is attention. Where do we put our attention? What do we do with our time?”
“One of my favorite things about the show is that it explores what it means to be human,” Langley says. “What’s central to being a human being, to myth, to storytelling, to any kind of depiction of faith, anything along those lines, and it’s through the lens of what it means to be an American. But what I really connect with is that it’s an honest look at us, as a species, as a society. It’s a mirror held up to us, and there are many aspects that people are going to love about these depictions and effigies of what we believe, lots that we don’t like, but it’s all us. It’s all from us as a society in some way, shape, or form.”
So as you might have figured out by now, it’s a hard show to describe in just a few words. Even Neil Gaiman struggles with putting the story in any category.
“I had somebody the other day ask—because she was worried, not because she was curious—’Is this science fiction, or is it horror, or is it satire, or what?’ And I’m like, well, it won the Hugo and the Nebula awards for best science fiction novel, the British Fantasy award as best fantasy novel, the World Horror Award when it came out as a novel, and honestly your guess is as good as mine. It is what it is. But what I love is that weird gallimaufry that the book was is now the weird gallimaufry that the TV series is.”
Then again, you could always go with the words of Mousa Kraish, who plays a god called the Jinn:
“I feel like if you took a blender and you put in The X-Files, Game of Thrones, a dash of cocaine, a Quentin Tarrantino film, and Bryan Fuller’s crazy mind, this is what you’re going to get.”
American Gods premieres this Sunday at 9 p.m. on Starz.