In order to answer whether or not the first season of the Starz TV show American Gods (2017), adapted from Neil Gaiman’s novel, is worth watching, there is another question first and foremost to answer: Do you like the signature aesthetic of showrunner Bryan Fuller? He possesses the unique power to electrify your every single nerve ending, to push your mental state to the edge of sanity, to have your perception of beauty and reason questioned—this is Bryan Fuller, the developer, writer, and executive producer of the NBC TV show Hannibal (2013-15) as well as American Gods.
I presume that there’re mainly two groups of people interested in American Gods, those who wonder how their all-time-favorite Gaiman novel will be presented on screen, and those who are dedicated fans of Fuller. As a mere amateur viewer, I can only sit back and admire how his macabre images are aestheticized. To evaluate Fuller’s style, however, I have to first admit that at times his style can be slightly disturbing due to its surreality and violence.
Fuller loves messing with the audience’s sanity, as evidenced in some strikingly similar scenes from the two TV series. In Hannibal, we have Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), the mentally disturbed protagonist, wandering solitarily on the road in the dark late at night, whilst in American Gods, main character Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) saunters on the asphalt with only the company of some dim street lamps. During these parallel scenes of people walking the streets alone, with the help of musical and visual effects, Fuller intentionally creates a sense of relaxation that makes you feel ultra tense, for you expect something eerie to soon follow—and indeed it does. Will later on encounters a wild stag that represents his excited mental state, and Shadow subsequently is caught in an ambush.
Blood is withal another conspicuous feature that Fuller’s camera savors. In the very beginning of the first episode of Hannibal, we are instantly presented with a series of shocking images: a dead woman lying in a pool of blood right in her own house. Bullets fly, blood spills, a body collapses—all are captured in slow motion from dynamic angles; and through Will’s empathy-fueled imaginative connection to the killer, the audience gets to feast on a reverse construction of the crime scene: blood flows backwards through the air, the corpse sucks back its leaking crimson liquid, and the bloodstains on the wall, likewise, dart back to their source. Correspondingly, instant macabre in American Gods appears just a few minutes after the show starts. There is first throat slaying, then scythes stabbing straight into the stomach, and gradually, people are brutally cut in half, both horizontally and vertically. Once again, spilled blood hangs in midair as it bursts out from the bodies. The blood appears brightly clear and crystallized transparent, almost glittering under the sunlight. Such careful demonstration of claret gore is a Fuller favorite; it doesn’t help the audience to understand the show better, nor does it appear to be particularly effective plot development, but it certainly is beautiful.
However dazzling the images are in a sense, there’s no denying that Fuller’s works are not created to please the majority of the audience. For instance, there’s one particular “pendulum” visual effect in Hannibal; it recurs whenever Will is analyzing and visualizing the creation of a crime scene. The iconic “pendulum” serves as a medium, a self-defensive mental bridge for Will to empathically indulge in the murderer’s mindset. I appreciate this mechanism that Fuller himself relishes, especially in the first season. And yet, the notable declining appearance of the “pendulum” in later seasons reflects the opinion of a significant part of the audience—some find it rather annoying. In American Gods, Fuller surrounds the dead wife Laura with numerous flies throughout the show to remind viewers of her dead status. There thus come the inevitable (inevitable because Fuller enjoys them) close-ups of a fly hitting the ground hard, or its wings vibrating in the air. The audience thus needs to learn to find the eccentric invigorating.
Finally, let’s face it: Fuller’s works tend to be short-lived. Why? Many a TV series of his end up being suspended in the middle of production, or even sometimes only the pilot survives; the aesthetic madness in his personal character could be the answer. Midway through watching Fuller’s work, I get struck several times by a frantic feeling that compels me to yell, “What exactly am I watching?!” In the same way, I always finish an episode of American Gods with a sense of “What the hell did I just watch?” lingering in my mind. Fuller seems to enjoy “poking people in the mind’s eye” by playing with the sanity of both the characters in the show as well as his audience in reality—he fancies inserting some obscene matter as a way to express his ideas. “I want to put the audience in the point of view of the killer, who doesn’t feel that what they’re doing, in most of these instances, is ugly,” Fuller says. “I want to make it difficult to look away from horror by making horror beautiful.”
Is the TV show American Gods worth watching? I’d say that those who don’t mind some variation from the original novel and, more importantly, those who can stand Bryan Fuller’s aesthetic madness for two seasons in a row, can give it a try.