American Gods Owes Its Imaginative Take on the Divine to Two One-Season WondersStarz TV Features American Gods
Now is the time for American Gods.
Although American Gods, the book, was published in 2001, a television adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel made any earlier couldn’t have accommodated the blood, sex, profanity, and carefully limited episode order this story demands.
American Gods is an ambitious story, tackling the nature of divinity and America, two things Americans love to fight about. It also arrives at a very politically charged moment, particularly for a series about the immigrant experience with a black ex-con as its “average American” protagonist. With everyone wrapped up in what American Gods has to say about the present, though, I’d like to take a cue from the series itself and dig up the past. Starz’s American Gods owes it all to two long forgotten one-season wonders: Wonderfalls (2004) and Kings (2009). Each was created by one of American Gods’ co-creators Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, and each is a bold, imaginative take on the divine in modern America.
Fans of Fuller watching American Gods might notice similarities to his other TV work: Hannibal’s beautiful gore, Dead Like Me’s gallows humor or Pushing Daisies’ Kristin Chenoweth. But American Gods’ truest spiritual predecessor is FOX’s short lived Wonderfalls, co-created with Todd Holland and starring Caroline Dhavernas as Jaye Tyler, a retail clerk in a Niagara Falls gift shop who is pestered by inanimate objects that talk to her. The objects—a cow creamer, lawn flamingos—give Jaye messages or quests, such as, “Find a penny, pick it up,” or “Lick the light switch.” Jaye tries to ignore these voices, but to her frustration, every action she takes on their behalf has an unexpected and incredible ripple effect, changing, and sometimes saving, lives. So, poor Jaye, the slacker, is dragged kicking and screaming into being a force for good in the universe.
With only one season, Wonderfalls never had the room to properly explore the larger implications of what force Jaye is a servant of, but the question is always present: Jaye even tries asking the objects outright, warning, “If you don’t say something in the next five seconds, I’m gonna assume you’re Satan.” Jaye’s brother, Aaron (Lee Pace), a theology scholar, attempts to explain Jaye’s experiences through the lens of multiple religious traditions. In the penultimate episode, “Totem Mole,” Jaye gets wrapped up in helping a local Native American tribe find their new spiritual leader after the former one, Gentlefeather (Kyra Harper), indicates she and Jaye share the same gift. Jaye is a seer, like Gentlefeather, but she’s no spiritual leader. She lacks a cultural or religious framework to approach something as big as messages from divine forces.
Of course, Jaye does have a framework: She’s an overeducated, underemployed member of Gen-Y. She’s an obnoxious American who won’t let the universe push her around and none of it saves her from her destiny. The pilot opens with the myth of The Maid in the Mist, a myth that is repeatedly pointed out to be completely inaccurate—and yet, the statue built in its honor and the famous line from the story, “I surrender to destiny,” are instrumental in guiding Jaye on her journey. America’s myths are new and mostly made up to sell tchotchkes, but they still hold power. This is a major theme in Gaiman’s American Gods, too. America lacks the typical holy grounds; instead, places like the world’s biggest ball of twine hold spiritual power, because people come from all over the country to pay tribute. Niagara Falls functions the same way in Wonderfalls. This is underlined by a brief sequence in American Gods in which we watch the inner workings of a jukebox, playing the music that accompanies Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) reading his wife’s (Emily Browning) obituary and accepting a job offer from one Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane). The pilot of Wonderfalls has a nearly identical sequence, in which we see the inner workings of the machine that makes the first souvenir to talk to Jaye. For Fuller, the tacky Americana of places like Niagara Falls and roadside rest stops ends up having the most a direct line to the universe.
Kings, from American Gods co-creator Michael Green, doesn’t have the same whimsy as Wonderfalls. Some have credited Hannibal for inspiring the monologues and dark tonal moments in American Gods, but Kings’ influence should not be ignored. For one, Ian McShane starred in Kings long before he was cast as Mr. Wednesday. On Kings, McShane played Silas Benjamin, a prophet of God and a king of the fictional country of Gilboa. Silas was chosen by God to be king and do His works, but Silas grew corrupt, and so God’s favor has moved to David Shepherd (Christopher Egan), a sweet, naïve farm boy and solider, and the series is about the ensuing power shift. The series is based on the biblical story of King David, but with the sensibilities, fashion and technology of modern America (well, “2009 flip phone” modern). I laughed when Mr. Wednesday offered Shadow the chance to be “the next king of America,” because I’ve seen McShane go back on that very deal before.
Kings is a show about faith, but faith in a world where there’s proof of God’s existence. There’s no doubt God’s a factor—the characters only doubt whether what God wants is best for them. King Silas devotes his life to God until God stops doing him favors. The prince, Jack (Sebastian Stan), resents God because the crown is his by legal right and God won’t let him have it. The princess, Michelle (Allison Miller), walks into deadly situation after deadly situation, mistakenly believing it’s what God demands of her.
This understanding of faith as a power you believe exists but might not trust is shared by Wonderfalls and American Gods. In the latter, protagonist Shadow tries his damnedest to mind his own fucking business and everywhere he turns are gods and myths and impossible coincidences. How do you behave when you’ve been called for a destiny you may not want? How do you proceed when you know the cosmos is watching and judging, and possibly conspiring against you?
More pressingly though, how do you behave when even the most mundane things could have divine significance? One of my favorite things about Kings is God’s complete lack of subtlety in his messages. Who needs Waze when God will change the direction of the wind to tell you you’re going the wrong way? In Wonderfalls, Jaye spends as much time misinterpreting messages as she spends ignoring them, but even her mistakes snowball into destiny: In one notable instance, Jaye’s attempt to defy the voices causes a man to get into a car accident, which in turn leads him to marry one of his paramedics. In the world of American Gods, agreeing to “worship” a woman in bed isn’t harmless dirty talk for the poor schlub (Joel Murray) who ends up on an Internet date with the goddess Bilquis (Yetide Badaki): Those careless words become a ritual sacrifice.
Meaning isn’t reserved for the gods, though. All three series also focus on the way human beings can force the hand of the universe through their own will. In Kings, God doesn’t tell David to have his iconic “David and Goliath” moment by facing down a war tank alone—it’s his choice, his intention, that give the moment meaning. By the end of Wonderfalls, Jaye is helping people unprovoked, even if she’s still pretty bad at it. When those Vikings in the opening sequence of American Gods kill each other just to get Odin’s attention, they’re taking control of the universe. They are doing and believing so hard that their god has no choice but to cross an ocean. Mr. Wednesday explains this concept in his first conversation with Shadow, proposing that even gravity works only because humans believe in it so fiercely.
From reading the book, I know what Gaiman’s American Gods is and was, but it’s from watching Wonderfalls and Kings that I feel I know what Starz’s American Gods can become: A series about the power of belief, of Americana, of fighting or succumbing to destiny. (Or, at least, a testament to the talents of Ian McShane.) Perhaps you already love American Gods. Perhaps you already hate it. Either way, as it absorbs the culture’s attention and adoration, be sure to pay your respects to those unloved and ignored series that came before. Old, forgotten stories have a way of coming back.
American Gods airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Starz.
Sara Ghaleb is a Los Angeles writer and comedian. She takes pop culture much too seriously. You can see her sketch team The Burbs perform at The Nerdist School Stage. Follow her at @saraghaleb.