Apotheosis: Why “American Gods” is the culmination of Bryan Fuller’s career

With just two episodes, the new Starz show “American Gods” has displayed more originality, depth and complexity of tone than most TV series achieve in multiple seasons. Moving effortlessly between grim darkness and fantastical whimsy, it plunges into the multifaceted religious experience while also investigating the human experience. And although it is based on Neil Gaiman’s excellent book, this slice of television perfection could only have been delivered into a new medium with the magical realism of showrunner Bryan Fuller. Throughout his career, Fuller has shown an indelible ability to uniquely traverse between the light and dark, but it’s not until “American Gods” that Fuller was able to perfectly unify so many of his particular idiosyncrasies, obsessions and visions.

As a writer and producer, Fuller has worked on many beloved projects over the years, whether it’s his start in the “Star Trek” universe, his canceled-too-soon dramedy “Wonderfalls” or his work shepherding the cheerleader storyline in the first season of NBC’s “Heroes.” He also tried his hand with ethereal creations in “Dead Like Me” and dabbled in the comically macabre world of the Munsters with the failed reboot, “Mockingbird Lane.” But ultimately, the two shows that best reflect his ethos and duality are “Pushing Daisies” and “Hannibal.” While both cater around an eccentric cast in a sort of hyperrealistic version of life, their tones could not have been more different. And it wasn’t until “American Gods” that Fuller found a way to unify them under one story.

The original ABC series “Pushing Daisies” took place in a land of bright colors, spontaneous musicals and a light-hearted morbidity that existed in a world of almost cartoon proportions. For those unaware, it centered on a piemaker named Ned who was able to resurrect the dead, but only for a minute or else there were dire consequences. Ned and his friends soon found themselves in various misadventures solving murders weekly, while love triangles formed and the group discovered the joys of living even in this bizarre world. The delightful show was incredibly particular and singular in its existence and thus (combined with being hobbled by the writers’ strike of 2007) was doomed to not have a long life on television.

This vision took some of what had popped up before in Fuller’s other work and whipped it into a whimsical froth. From its incredibly bright color palette, to its fairy tale-esque narration and naming conventions, it presented a world that resembled our own but filled with much better dialogue and a real sense of literal magic. Fuller, with his staff of writers and directors, was able to create a universe of limitless possibility, sweeping romance and a sense of the divine located within the hearts of every day people.

“Hannibal,” NBC’s show based on Thomas Harris’ series of novels, was as dark and foreboding as “Pushing Daisies” was light and uplifting. In this tale of imaginative killers and the fractured people that hunt them, Fuller saw a darker fairy tale to write. It was a world full of incredible visuals, broken souls desperate for connections with others and a sense of madness run rampant in a world absent of a just or loving god. If “Pushing Daisies” was humanist because of its faith in people being able to do extraordinary things, “Hannibal” was the dark inversion that showed what happened when they were truly allowed to be in charge of their own fates. Cannibalistic dinners became works of art; grisly murder scenes were turned into beautiful metaphors that elicited gasps for how horrific they were as well as how beautifully they were displayed.

Will Graham works with Dr. Hannibal Lecter, attempting to track down serial killers, before eventually having to hunt the superhuman doctor for his transgressions against society. Once again backed by great writers and directors, Fuller delivered a world of waking nightmares that muddied the waters between the sane and the insane, between what was right and what was forbidden, and found an uneasy alliance between the two halves of the human soul.

This brings us to “American Gods,” which is peak Bryan Fuller in the way it unites these two sides of his work. Fuller has always been fascinated by both the miraculous and the macabre, doting as much on the strength of the individual to overcome great injustices as he does on the terrifying acts committed by others. But there seemed to be a tonal wall between these two halves of the television visionary; it’s hard to weld the magical realism of hope with the gruesome details of the horrific. But “American Gods” is the perfect vehicle that shows Fuller’s capacity for both. Whether it’s the opening parable of Vikings discovering America, only to be met by arrows, bugs and sacrifice; or the playful banter between Mr. Wednesday and Shadow; or the erotically charged scene of Bilquis consuming her lover, Fuller has found a way to traverse between all of his interests without causing whiplash for the viewers trying to find solid footing within this brave new world.

The reason why it’s so fitting that Fuller’s passions collide and combine in this television series is its subject matter. Gods, depending on the era, can be terrifying or inspiring, or even both. Religion evokes some of mankind’s greatest acts of charity and artistic expression, but also some of its most horrible acts of violence and oppression. The multitudes that live within myths allow for all of these expressions, which perfectly mirror the multifaceted inner worlds of the humans who are devoted to them. And so Fuller is able to deliver a world of incredible possibilities, true magic being delivered with a wink and a smile, but also dwells in the imaginative bloodletting that he so often loves. And just as Gaiman depicted in his book, the gods (both old and new) of America are varied because the country’s people are varied as well, from disparate lands and beliefs. This will give Fuller a huge sandbox in which to write his tales of humanistic endeavors bogged down by the petty atrocities we visit upon one another.

In a career that has reached from the inner-most thoughts of people to the outer rim of space, Bryan Fuller has always maintained the beauty found within the experience. No matter how awful it can get, there is something within that experience that brings with it a reward for having approached the divine. Now, with “American Gods,” he’s able to tear down the wall between his lighter side and his darkness to create a melded world of both as he literally travels amongst deities. Murder, romance, violence, hope – all are intermingled in a beautiful way that displays humanity’s true capacity. “American Gods” is the culmination of Bryan Fuller’s work because it is able to embrace all sides of the fractured minds and broken souls and find within them something worth worshipping.

  

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