American Gods: “The Bone Orchard” Series Premiere Review

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As the golden age of television soldiers on, we’re starting to see auteurs emerge in the same way that the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese did in the 1970s. Creators like Damon Lindelof, Vince Gilligan, and even Louis CK have put their creative stamps on multiple series that embody not only their status as very separate but equally relevant auteurs, but justify the very phrase “peak TV.” With Hannibal under his belt, and undoubtedly the greatest horror series of all time, Bryan Fuller is the latest celebrated creator looking to finally break free from his network shackles and tackle something ambitious and fascinating. It’s hard to tell if his adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods will garner Fuller the praise his previous efforts deserved after just one episode, especially one as purposefully unconventional as “The Bone Orchard.” But it’s sure great to once again be living in a world being driven by Fuller.

After an opening credits sequence that somehow outdoes American Horror Story‘s, despite not even totally being in that genre, American Gods proves to be a visual feast. Taking more than a few cues from Hannibal in terms of editing, colorization, and the visual dolling out of information, the pilot speaks in fantastical metaphors. An ambitious way to start to be sure, one that might put off the non-Fuller faithfuls, “The Bone Orchard” is more about setting up the series’ aesthetic and tone rather than its plot. Rest assured, those are the two best things about the pilot, with its involving aesthetic layered to the core and its light, frothy tone pointing toward the cheeky drama to come. But plot is where this story gets off to a bit of a bumpy start.

After a prologue that sees a boatload of vikings questioning their faith in a time of need, and resolving their issues with hyper-stylized gore, we’re introduced to Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), a man scheduled to be released from prison in five days when the warden lets him know that his wife died. American Gods immediately puts Shadow Moon up as its pillar protagonist. He’s higher than the everyman, suave in ways most can only hope, but troubled in ways that give him character. He’s a cliche, and for now, it seems like he’s supposed to be. For that, Whittle doesn’t have to try very hard to prove himself capable of carrying this series, which makes his borderline sleepy performance more forgivable. But that is a concern for when the show eventually finds its groove, if the lead is still underwhelming.

That said, the most delicious dialogue and scenery chewing scenes in the premiere go to Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane, as dry, hammed up, and loving his screentime as you want him to be), who mysteriously keeps showing up around Shadow Moon with a job offer. He eventually accepts, which spawns the climax of the premiere after his wife’s funeral, when a new god (Bruce Langley) shoves Shadow in his car and demands information on Mr. Wednesday. Shadow denies everything and somehow every one of this foe’s faceless minions end up exploding in the rain.

It would appear that some sort of war is brewing. But the pilot is too light on details to give us more, and not in the character defining ways that Legion‘s insane pilot did. American Gods is tasty to look at, and the supporting players are all clearly up for the game ahead, especially McShane. The question is Shadow Moon. The show deserves time to get its world and lead character in order before proper judgement, and this pilot is incredibly entertaining. That’s enough, for now. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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