“American Gods” is a painstakingly rendered and visually captivating adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s best-selling 2001 novel about the animosity between old mythological gods of yore and the new gods of media, technology and the like.
At least, that’s as simple as I can make it. Long on concept and short on momentum, each episode of “American Gods” (there are eight, the first of which premieres Sunday on Starz) feels like the pilot for still another show and then another. The story takes viewers on a journey of detours, all in the aim of getting started. At least 17 characters are introduced in the first three or four hours — some central, some recurring, with such surprising cameos as Cloris Leachman — with many still to come, including a Westernized version of Jesus himself (Jeremy Davies), and with more cryptic talking than doing.
Developed for TV by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, “American Gods” is done up in the usual high style of today’s solemnly told fantasy projects, which means that every other scene appears to be a dream sequence or gripped by supernatural illusion; in fight scenes, the film speed slows down to catch shimmering cherry-syrup splashes of blood (the same spurts that dotted Fuller’s underappreciated “Hannibal” for NBC). Viewers can perhaps look at “American Gods” more easily than follow it, with some faint reassurance that things will make sense soon enough. (It’s premium cable! Sooner or later, all of these shows have to make some sense.)
Ricky Whittle stars as Shadow Moon, a handsome prisoner nearing the end of his sentence for an attempted casino heist; the warden frees him a few days early because his lovely wife, Laura (Emily Browning), has been killed in a car crash.
Making his way home to attend Laura’s funeral, Shadow meets Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), a beaten-down but still powerful human representation of Odin, who offers him a job as his right-hand man. After bizarre encounters with a belligerent (and quite tall) leprechaun named Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) and the newfangled gods of technology (Bruce Langley) and media (Gillian Anderson), Shadow learns that Mr. Wednesday is rallying the old gods to battle the new gods. In both vibe and execution, “American Gods” reminds me of the ambitious yet burdensome “Emerald City” series on NBC earlier this year — another broadly envisioned epic that got tangled up in art-direction and mythological theme.
At such a deliberate pace, “American Gods” doesn’t offer any promise that its ultimate showdown will soon come to pass. The excessive buildup, however, offers certain memorable scenes of these deities at play in the past and present, including the bizarre sight of Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), the goddess of love, seducing both men and women via an online dating app and then devouring them whole — and not with her mouth, I am unhappy to report. In another scene, the trickster god Anansi, a.k.a. Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones), visits African prisoners trapped in a 17th-century slave ship and incites a fiery revolt by revealing to them the future of the black race in America.
This is a series with a lot to show and more to tell, wrapped up in a story that seems to know no bounds; enjoyment will vary from viewer to viewer, and it probably wouldn’t hurt to already be a fan of the source material. The same might have been said of Starz’s most recent success, “Outlander,” a time-hopping Scottish war romance based on a series of novels that have fiercely devoted readers. “Outlander” found a way to lure viewers who hadn’t read the books, mainly by giving them a clear shot at comprehending a complicated premise. Unless it’s intended solely for a niche audience, “American Gods” could stand to work harder on its accessibility issues.
American Gods (one hour) premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on Starz.