'American Gods' explores the power of belief

Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) and Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) in "American Gods"  Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) and Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) in "American Gods" 

“What makes airplanes fly?,” asks the mysterious Mr. Wednesday near the start of Starz’s new series “American Gods.” Is it Newtonian physics, or the faith of the passengers?

Although we are living at a time when people deny climate change and the existence of Australia (really), it seems like a nonsensical question. But from the perspective of the ages, how could 500 tons of steel possibly soar through the air but through the action of some very mighty almighties? Almost everything that we take for granted today would have driven the entire Age of Enlightenment to its knees in grateful supplication.

Mr. Wednesday’s question begs another: As technologically and culturally “advanced” as we view ourselves in some parts of the world today, can we really say that we do not have various gods and goddesses of our own? Do we not pledge our allegiance to forces or individuals to whom we are willing to sacrifice our time, our wealth, even human lives, so that we might climb higher or live better than anyone has ever imagined? Yes, we have gotten better at hiding those we sacrifice (or just not seeing them), but it is unlikely our hands are any less covered in blood than those of the Mayans, the Romans, the Vikings or Christian Crusaders.

“American Gods” looks primed to deliver interesting meditations on belief, as well as visually sumptuous storytelling.

It is intriguing terrain for a television show, that’s for sure. And based on its premiere, “American Gods” looks primed to deliver not only interesting meditations on belief, but some visually sumptuous, narratively lavish storytelling. (The pilot alone has one of those scenes, like the Red Wedding or the death of Ned Stark in “Game of Thrones,” that people will be talking and writing about for a long, long time.)

Co-creator Bryan Fuller, having taken the story of Hannibal Lecter to wildly creative extremes over three seasons on NBC, brings every dazzling visual flourish he perfected there to the story of Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) in “American Gods.” An ex-con mourning the death of his wife, Shadow Moon is hired by Mr. Wednesday (played with relish by Ian McShane) to be his driver/bodyguard in the midst of what appears to be a war between the “old gods”(think the Norse god, Odin) and the “new gods” (think technology) for the worship of humanity.

I don’t know where (or if) Christian characters will figure into the story; the opening credits, a mash-up of ancient religious iconography and modern technology, does feature an astronaut nailed to a cross, which I found a weirdly fantastic melding of ideas. (It is an undeniable fact that Jesus loves Bowie.) Whether or not some version of the Christ ever ambles on screen, the show’s underlying idea that human belief creates not only power but life (and death)—a concept highlighted in the show’s opening sequence of the first Vikings to arrive in America performing more and more desperate methods of worship to prompt their god’s salvific action—couldn’t be more relevant to the religious and secular landscapes of today. In his recent TED talk (a.k.a. “The World’s Best Grandpa Facetimes From the Library”), Pope Francis made the point that just one person’s hope has the capacity to change everything. “Does hope begin when we have an ‘us’?” he asks. “No. Hope began with one ‘you’. When there is an ‘us’, there begins a revolution.”

Our current political situation, too, is in many ways a primer in the power of belief (and come to think of it, also disbelief). The boo birds of despair may bemoan what they see to be a growing secularism in the United States, but truly, faith is all around us, just perhaps not in the things we would hope. In such a world, perhaps there is no better vehicle than an audacious, irreverent, hypervisualized television show to bring those dynamics into the light.

More: Books / TV

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