Doesn’t roll off the tongue in quite the same way as the title of that TV Series based on the epic novel by Neil Gaiman does it?
If you haven’t heard of American Gods the book then here’s as brief a description as I can manage. It’s about a war between the old gods of mythology and the shiny new gods of modern society. It’s a road novel, a meditation on the art of the con, a critique of America and a paean to Americana. At various points it’s also an anthology of stories about immigrants, a murder mystery and a slice of life drama.
It’s a bit of a mess to be honest and I haven’t even talked about the main character and the difficult relationship he has with his dead but un-departed wife yet. Or the troubles that pagan gods face when they’ve lost most of their power due to lack of worshippers and have to get a job as, say; a taxi driver to get by. But while it’s not the most disciplined or fast paced novel in the world it’s still a great read and worth picking up, as much for the world building and curious asides as for the grand overarching story beats. It’s actually a lot like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell in that respect.
When done right TV really suits this kind of story, because there’s so much material to dig into to make each individual episode unique and interesting. One episode might chronicle a high stakes game of wits between a man and a retired butcher who is also a god of darkness. Another explores the bitter legacy of African Gods brought to the USA along with the cruelly enslaved humans who worshipped them. With all this to draw on, American Gods the TV Series completely outshines the standard run of Urban Fantasy TV Shows. (Maybe you’ve seen them; a Vampire, Wizard, Immortal, Zombie or even The Devil Himself have nothing better to do with their time than to help a detective of varying gender and level of grumpiness solve murders). It’s cleverer, more original and a hell of a lot more stylish.
But American Gods is not the first TV Show to feature pagan gods having to survive in a modern world. It’s not even the first show to focus on Norse Mythology and have Odin as a main character. It’s not even the first show like this that’s set in a former British colony.
That prize goes to The Almighty Johnsons. In this show worship is less of a problem for gods but the members of the Norse Pantheon are still a mere shadow of their former glory; little more than mortals with a handful of supernatural tricks between them. To make things worse they had to flee persecution by a secret organisation of fanatical god-hunters and have taken refuge in New Zealand.
There is no war between rival pantheons in The Almighy Johnsons, though there is a barbecue between rival pantheons which gets a bit shouty at one point.
So how does American Gods measure up to its predecessor? Well it’s more literary, artier, bloodier and seemingly more self-aware, (not to mention its special effect budget must have been a whole lot bigger).
But it may be unfair to make the comparison at all. Because although they draw on some of the same material the two shows present it in totally different ways.
American Gods is about stories. Not just the story of Shadow Moon or Laura Moon or Wednesday, (Odin to you), but the stories of all the different ethnic groups who came to America and made it what it is today. It tells those tales in a gorgeous, dream-like and often disturbing way.
The Almighty Johnsons is about people, just one group of people really. A raucous blend of sex, comedy, betrayal and the occasional murder; it’s basically a soap opera that just happens to pull plotlines from mythology. And like any other soap opera it’s ultimately about a family simultaneously growing together and falling apart.
The Almighty Johnsons doesn’t attempt to capture or explain the soul of New Zealand itself. It isn’t about New Zealand. Certainly you’ll learn a bit about Maori mythology if you watch Season 2 but there’s no attempt to link those stories to the nature of New Zealand as a country.
Wednesday would tell you that this is because Americans are the only people who worry about what their country is.
I think that the opposite is true in this case. Neil Gaiman came to America himself from Britain. It’s not surprising that he would write about the things that made his adopted country unique because such things are all the more mysterious and fascinating to an immigrant who hasn’t grown up with them. If you aren’t from the USA then roadside attractions, televangelists and the American Dream are all as strange and fantastical in their way as leprechauns and revenants.
And someone who has put so much thought into his own journey to America is bound to find interest in stories of similar journeys, other perspectives, more ingredients in the rich and sometimes toxic stew of modern American culture.
For, James Griffin and Rachel Lang, the creators of The Almighty Johnsons, New Zealand holds no such mystery; it’s where they grew up, it’s situation normal. What seems to have interested them was how these elements of magic, a fate that if not fulfilled will cause appalling devastation, the ability to turn anyone to your will, the curse of being unable to touch anyone without eventually killing them, tragic love affairs doomed to repeat themselves from generation to generation, would affect the behaviour of otherwise ordinary New Zealanders.
They also clearly wanted to have fun; cheerful, laddish, (or ladettish), fun. I’m not sure that any scene in American Gods sets out to be fun. Entertaining, beautiful, tragic, absorbing, yes; fun or light-hearted, no.
So there it is, if you want a new perspective to deepen your understanding of Norse Mythology after watching American Gods then I wouldn’t start with The Almighty Johnsons, though it certainly features a lot of Norse Gods that you’ve probably never heard of. You’d be better off reading The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris or Neil Gaiman’s own Norse Mythology. And if you want a series that’s like American Gods then you’re out of luck; it’s pretty unique. Although you could try Preacher or the aforementioned Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.
But if you want a lighter and sillier take on mythology as a change of pace then I’d heartily recommend tracking The Almighty Johnsons down, if you can.