It’s a curious time to be an American — this much is incontrovertible. And as much as audiences are using pop culture to escape questions about our country’s identity, there’s value in turning to art for answers, too. It seems no television show is in a better position to address the topic of what it means to be an American than Starz’s American Gods (premiering April 30).
There’s a lot of important television right now, as there always has been: HBO’s Big Little Lies just triumphed in representing authentic female companionship; Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why is lifting a veil on teen mental health; Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, premiering next week and adapted from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name, arrives in Trump’s America as a cautionary harbinger of a totalitarian future. But strip away the supernatural cadence of American Gods — a show based on a fantasy novel about holy hidden figures who live among us, some of them cosmically powerful and others barely living on a prayer — and what’s left is something viewers are unlikely to find anywhere else on narrative television: an ensemble of immigrants trying to make it in a country actively turning against them.
“These gods were manifested into reality by their believers who migrated to America and then died and left them essentially powerless, and now they’re just trying to find their way in the world,” executive producer Bryan Fuller, who runs the show with fellow executive producer Michael Green, explains. “There’s a broken quality to each of these characters, a fallen quality. It’s about people who have found themselves strangers in a strange land, trying to make their way the best they can. It’s hard not to see how human their experience is. It’s an immigration story much more than a god story.”
The crux of American Gods, based on Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel, is that ancient mythological figures from around the world — folks like Anansi, Sheba, Horus, Loki — arrived on our shores centuries ago through the worship of immigrants but have remained in America long afterward. With few believers left, they’re having trouble gleaning power (and thereby surviving) from a country that’s instead so focused on ideas like celebrity, technology, and consumerism that a whole new host of American gods have manifested from those obsessions (among those characters, Gillian Anderson plays Media, the goddess of TV, taking the shape of various Hollywood icons; Bruce Langley is the Internet-powered Technical Boy, ever-evolving to almost desperate degree). But, hey, America’s a big country! There ought to be room to believe in both! GQ says that the modern man can multitask!
Sadly, the circulation of human attention is, like all other forms of currency, finite. The rise of new gods must mean less prayer for the old. The life-or-death stakes of America’s ethereal economy have cultivated a resentment toward the old gods, too, and a desire by the new to not just best but eradicate international competition. Already a part of the new country, the old gods have nowhere to go. And we, the unwitting human pawns, are unaware of how crucial we are as participants to the whole crisis. Draw whatever parallels you please.
“There’s a lovely, weird, horrible level on which it feels very appropriate right now,” says Gaiman, who commends the fortuitous timing that did, in fact, place his 2001 novel in this exact adaptive position despite a decade of prior Hollywood offers. “This is a story about immigrants,” he stresses. “It’s about America being built of people who have come from elsewhere, who have left their culture behind them, and it’s a way of talking about that difference between old and new, about future shock for immigration, for technology. And at the time that we wrote the scripts to start shooting, it did not feel like anything had really changed.”
And yet the world has. Co-showrunner Green says, “One of the interesting things about doing this adaptation now is immigration stories have gone from something that defines us and we can be proud of, to something that this country has become upset about. When we started, we never thought we’d be in that place, and suddenly we’re looking at our own stories a little differently now.”
The sentiment echoes throughout the cast, many of whom share a palpable awareness that the show is sailing into choppy waters. Anderson says it’s always relevant but “eerie that the winds have changed so drastically.” Ian McShane, who plays a cagey old god by the name of Mr. Wednesday, remarks, “It seems very existential because of the government we’re now experiencing in America, but that can only be to its advantage. People will have to talk about it.”
Newcomer Yetide Badaki, a breakout cast member who plays the sex-hungry goddess, Bilquis, takes her cues on the subject from her own personal experience as a Nigerian-born immigrant: “We are literally asking now, what is America? This is a question that’s popping up in the news, and this show is asking all of the little questions around that question, and showing the journey for people who come here and try to find themselves, which I think is so important to ask now because everyone seems a little lost. They actually had to class it psychologically — they call us TCKs now, third culture kids — because we’re no longer completely of the old culture but also not completely of this new culture. And the combination creates another culture. And thank goodness they gave it a name because I know so many people, kids growing up, who ask, ‘Who am I in all this?’ So, God or not, this search for identity is so relevant.”
It’s worth noting that regular old humans are woven into the narrative in a prominent measure as well. Interstitial short stories mirror Gaiman’s “Somewhere in America” chapters, offering standalone glimpses into the religious lives of mortal characters we’ll perhaps never see again. The third episode features a poor housewife in Queens falling to her death and finding escort into the afterlife through the Egyptian arbiter, Anubis (Chris Obi); episode two opens with a flashback to desperate prisoners on a West African slave ship, visited with tenderness and terror by their trickster god, Anansi (Orlando Jones). Racism, gun culture, sexuality, intimacy, love, betrayal, suicide, and faith are all fair play, both for characters supernatural and super normal.
Gods debuts with a kind of prescient relevance that, unfortunately, can’t be lauded because it usually accompanies tragedy. Glee actor Kurt Hummel was once deemed television’s most important character because his journey mirrored a troubling rise in school bullying. Scandal and The Good Wife created shockwaves for airing eerily prescient episodes about police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. TV shows, to the sliver who know their inner workings, are not nearly as reactionary as many give them credit for; Green himself hit on this accidental prescience with a recent tweet: “Film/TV is a long process. Anything you see reflect Trump America now means a writer saw a silly twinkle in the sky & said THAT IS AN ASTEROID.”
Which more or less brings us back to the current political and cultural climate into which American Gods arrives, one that has been already shaken by a disruption. Gaiman has already anticipated what some will say about the show’s challenge to morals, religion, and belief — political or otherwise. “I was interviewed recently and all I said was, ‘Doing a pro-immigration story in the age of Trump seems to mean something other than what it meant before,'” he recalls. “The headline, then, was ‘Gaiman slams Trump over American Gods.’ And that’s… no. If you want to watch me slamming Trump, read my Twitter feed. But that was merely stating something huge and obvious, and I loved the fact that the comments beneath it said, ‘I’m going to boycott it!’ Which I think in these days basically means, ‘I’m not going to watch it,’ which is probably good, because anybody with that kind of mindset probably wouldn’t enjoy it very much. They probably won’t like the idea that we’re pointing to a pretty simple fact, really: Everybody who came here, came from somewhere.” With facts so often challenged today, that’s one worthy of reminding.