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"American Gods" opens with a sequence set long before there was an America. Vikings come ashore in the New World and … well, let's just say that what happens will reach out and grab you. Horrify you. Make you laugh.
It's an appropriate way to kick off this adaptation of Neil Gaiman's 2001 best-seller.
The Starz series, premiering Sunday, centers on Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), a convict who has done most of his time and is looking forward to being released and returning to the wife he loves. He's also having strange dreams visions that he doesn't understand and tries to dismiss.
Shadow is called into the warden's office and told he's getting an early release because his wife is dead. And the circumstances behind her death are even more bad news for him.
He runs into Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), who comes across as a charming/obnoxious con man. Wednesday offers Shadow a job as sort of a valet/enforcer and refuses to take no for an answer.
Wednesday is not what he seems. He's one of the Old Gods Odin of Norse mythology and he takes Shadow along with him on a road trip to gather up other Old Gods to do battle with New Gods.
Wednesday and Shadow encounter some of the Old Gods like Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), a really big, really violent leprechaun, and a trio of offbeat/downright crazy witches (including one played by Cloris Leachman).
Others we meet in cutaway segments that don't immediately have anything to do with the main storyline, but will intersect somewhere down the line like a trickster/spider West Africa god, Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones), and an African fertility goddess, Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), who, posing as a prostitute, has an encounter that I can't even begin to describe in a general-circulation newspaper.
("American Gods" is a very adult show. Extraordinarily adult, in terms of sex and violence.)
Wednesday is gathering forces to do battle with the New Gods including Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), Media (Gillian Anderson) and Mr. World (Crispin Glover).
This New Gods-vs.-Old Gods struggle is allegory and commentary all wrapped into action and adventure.
It is, well, weird. It's sort of a pre-apocalyptic drama but funny. And bloodily violent. And thought-provoking. It' tackles racism, sexism, sexuality and religion, but it's not preaching. At least not much.
Hopes were high for "American Gods," and not just because of Gaiman's book. The showrunner here is Bryan Fuller, whose eclectic credits include "Pushing Daisies," "Hannibal" and "Wonder Falls." He hasn't disappointed with "American Gods," which is weird and mesmerizing.
As we've come to expect from a Fuller-produced show, it's visually arresting. Absolutely gorgeous, and sometimes deeply disturbing.
No, you don't have to read the book before watching the series. And, yes, it's very serialized. If you don't watch it from the beginning, you're going to be lost.
"American Gods" is mythic in scope. Almost a "Game of Thrones" set inside our world. You can feel elements of other programs in this series, but it's also unique in the television landscape.
But it's not always an easy show to watch, and not just because of the blood and the body count. You've got to be patient, because Fuller & Co. unspool this story slowly. If you only watch the first episode, you'll forever think what the hell was that?
There's a lot going on, but it doesn't make a lot of sense. Episodes 2 and 3 start to fill in some of the gaps.
And there's a big twist in Episode 4 that I won't spoil, but it will change the way you think about everything that's happened up to that point and make you anxious to see what happens next.
"American Gods" premieres Sunday on Starz 7 p.m. on DirecTV and Dish; 10 p.m. on Comcast.