Let’s talk about all that sex in American Gods
Talking point: Explicit gay sex scene in the fantasy made news for wrong reason
There are plenty of things to be thrilled and astounded by in American Gods, based on Neil Gaiman’s epic modern fantasy novel.
You can single out the ravishing photography, lavish production design and state-of-the-art special effects, which add up to one of the most visually stunning TV spectacles ever seen.
You can admire the ingenious way showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green have — with hands-on involvement from Gaiman — painstakingly adapted the novel (the first season covers just a third of it), while at the same time building on it.
Pre-existing characters have been updated (the book is now 16 years old) or given bigger roles. Gaiman has even introduced some completely new ones specifically for the series. Jesus, who wasn’t in the book, will be showing up soon. Five Jesuses, actually: white, black, Mexican, Asian and hippy.
Histories and backstories that were only hinted at in the book have been fleshed out. And not for a moment does any of this feel like the story is being padded simply to justify spreading it over several seasons.
It all enriches Gaiman’s original vision of a war between the old gods and the new ones that have usurped them.
Like this year’s other great book-to-screen transfer, The Handmaid’s Tale, American Gods is considerably more than the sum of the novel’s many great parts.
You can relish Ian McShane’s rip-roaring performance as mischievous, mysterious and not entirely trustworthy Mr Wednesday/Odin, which is every bit as memorably fabulous as his Al Swearengen in Deadwood.
You can marvel at the truly amazing transformation of Gillian Anderson, playing shape-shifting new god Media, into Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe and Ziggy Stardust-period David Bowie.
American Gods is exciting and exhilarating television. And yet, with all these visual and narrative riches to pick from, all some sections of the media — the UK tabloids mainly, and one of them in particular — seem to want to talk about is the sex.
So let’s do that, then. Let’s talk about sex. To be fair, there’s a lot of sex in American Gods.
The most talked-about moment in the first episode was the scene where Bilquis — the goddess of love, the Queen of Sheba — brings a man she’s met in a bar back to her place to have sex and literally swallows him through her vagina.
Even for those of us who’d read the book and knew what was about to happen, it was still an astonishing scene, not least for the technical brilliance involved in its making.
We’ve since seen Bilquis in action again, in a montage that shows her devouring one victim after another. But the scene that really raised the hackles of one tabloid came in episode three.
It depicted two Muslim men, one of them a taxi driver who’s really a djinn — a creature from Arabian and Islamic mythology — having sex in a New York City hotel room.
“Most explicit gay sex scene in TV history,” screamed the paper’s website, which helpfully carried nine screen grabs from the scene to show its readers how truly ghastly this whole dirty business was.
In truth, while the scene was intense and intimate, it was also tender and moving, and no more explicit than the straight sex scenes in cable TV shows. And for a change, there was an actual point to it, too.
The sex scenes in American Gods are there for reasons integral to the story. Bilquis devours men whole because doing so restores her power, which has waned.
The sex between the young gay Muslim man — who’s lonely, depressed and despised by his family (possibly because of his sexuality) — and the djinn is transcendental, climaxing with the two of them being raised to a higher realm.
“I don’t grant wishes,” the djinn tells him. But he does; he grants him the wish for love and companionship — and in a delightful twist, bequeaths him a new identity. It’s literally a gift from a god.
American Gods has something else going for it: a refreshingly equal-opportunities approach to nudity.
There’s no shortage of full-frontal female nakedness in Game of Thrones, old-fashioned titillation pitched at straight males, but not a solitary penis in sight.
In American Gods, neither sex’s blushes are spared. And about time, too. One out, all out, I say.