Early in “American Gods,” a new Starz series based on Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed 2001 novel, an old grifter played by Ian McShane sneers at America’s existential anxiety.
“This is the only country in the world that wonders what it is,” he mutters.
He doesn’t know the half of it — the scene was written and shot months before a polarizing presidential contest and new administration made fretting over the soul of America a national pastime. But it’s just one of the ways that this audacious series, debuting Sunday, April 30, possesses surprising relevancy for a 16-year-old story about deities that have been worshiped for millenniums.
“American Gods,” at its core, is a road story about an ex-con named Shadow (Ricky Whittle), who takes up with Mr. McShane’s enigmatic Mr. Wednesday. Their mission involves a rivalry between fading “old gods” — ancient mythological figures like Loki, Kali and Anansi, who were brought to life in America via the beliefs of immigrants — and new gods who have arisen to replace them, borne of more modern obsessions like technology and celebrity. Phantasmagorical and terrifically violent high jinks ensue, among other arresting visuals. (A reanimated corpse totes her amputated arm like a satchel. A love goddess consumes partners with her vagina.)
But beneath the extraordinary imagery is a story about the power and evolution of faith, and of immigrants who helped to build and define American culture, only to see said culture turn against them. This overarching theme, as well as smaller vignettes about American newcomers, have taken on the sheen of advocacy, the show’s overseers say, since Donald J. Trump’s election and proposed immigration bans.
The show, which finished shooting in October, was never planned as a political statement. But “what has changed, bizarrely and drastically and unfortunately, is that now immigration is seen by too many as something to be vilified,” said Michael Green, who created the series with Bryan Fuller.
The new gods’ hold on the American mindshare has also become exponentially more consuming since the book was written, years before Facebook, TMZ or iPhones. All of which suggests that while various “American Gods” adaptations have been proposed since the novel came out, to no avail, there’s never been a better time for one to come to fruition.
“Speculative fiction usually ages very badly,” Mr. Gaiman said. But in this case “the stuff that I wanted to talk about 17 years ago feels more apt, and more important, to talk about now.”
Conceptual underpinnings mean little without a compelling story, of course, but the showrunners’ backgrounds prepared them to adapt a magical realist genre classic like “American Gods.”
Mr. Fuller’s flair for hypnotic world-building and operatic, hallucinatory violence found full bloom in “Hannibal,” another reimagining of a beloved literary property (Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels). Mr. Green is another veteran refresher of pop myths, as the screenwriter for “Logan,” based on the X-Men character, and “Blade Runner 2049,” due out later this year.
The show they created, as Mr. Whittle put it, “is bananas,” a neo-noir head trip mashing up mythology, science fiction and stylized gore — think slow-motion splashes of blood set to brooding cellos — as it reveals the specifics of Mr. Wednesday’s quest. Like the novel, it skips around through time and space and blurs the border between reality and a more fantastical realm, lurking just below mundane American landscapes.
The casting gods have been generous. Veteran performers on hand include Cloris Leachman, Orlando Jones, Crispin Glover and Kristin Chenoweth. Corbin Bernsen is Vulcan, a god of fire who has found common cause with gun enthusiasts. Gillian Anderson plays the goddess Media, first appearing as Lucille Ball and, in another scene, speaking in David Bowie lyrics.
And of course for the cagey rogue Mr. Wednesday, the producers have, in Mr. McShane, television’s pre-eminent portrayer of cagey rogues. (See also Al Swearengen from “Deadwood,” as well as the title character from “Lovejoy,” the series that made him a star in England.)
For Starz, “American Gods” fits within a strategy that favors high-end genre tales with a built-in audience, like its “Outlander,” another literary adaptation. Fantasy stories in particular have a potential to connect with viewers’ inner children, said the Starz president Chris Albrecht, who ran HBO when the network acquired the rights to “Game of Thrones” in 2007.
They “can be unlocked and enjoyed by almost everyone,” he said. “Certainly ‘Thrones’ has been an example of that, and we hope a show like ‘American Gods’ can follow in those footsteps.”
Mr. Gaiman, who grew up in England but moved to the United States in 1992, was driven to write “American Gods” by an urge to understand and describe his new home. This celebrated author of both comics (“The Sandman”) and novels (“Neverwhere”) reached a new level of success with “American Gods,” a best-seller that won major prizes for fantasy and science fiction and horror. (He still plans to write a sequel.)
The expansive story was “intentionally not film-shaped,” Mr. Gaiman said, but directors still made inquiries over the years. HBO planned to adapt it into a series at one point — Mr. Gaiman worked on several drafts of a pilot — but nothing came of it.
After Stefanie Berk, an executive who had helped develop the project for HBO, moved to the production conglomerate FremantleMedia North America, she revisited the idea with Mr. Gaiman. (FremantleMedia is producing the series.) In 2014, they met with Mr. Fuller, then overseeing “Hannibal,” who knew Mr. Green from their time working together on NBC’s “Heroes.”
The writers approached the story as devotees first, asking themselves “what do you want to see in a TV show, as a fan of this material?” Mr. Fuller said. They also had the ideal consultant in Mr. Gaiman, a heavily involved executive producer who weighed in on casting, read scripts and offered guidance about the story’s direction.
“There was only one time Neil said, ‘If you do this, I will throw myself in front of a bus,’” Mr. Fuller said, referring to a plot point the showrunners were considering. “And we said, ‘O.K., we won’t do that.’”
So far, Starz has only officially committed to the first eight-episode season, which gets through roughly a third of the book. But the creators estimate that they have enough material for perhaps five, based on related stories Mr. Gaiman has written and ideas he has, as well as their own significant expansions of the source material.
Several of the novel’s “Coming to America” essays, short discrete immigrant stories, were woven into the overarching narrative. The show is bringing a story of diversity and a multiethnic cast to television at a time when movies like “Ghost in the Shell” and series like “Iron Fist” have brought new complaints about pop culture whitewashing, or using white actors for minority characters.
“We’re just doing what always should be done,” Mr. Fuller said.
If the immigrant tales give “American Gods” additional political heft, well, it’s in good company. A wide range of TV shows have acquired new meaning and resonance with the arrival of President Trump and his policies, including political shows like “Veep”; social issues series like “Shots Fired”; and even dystopian sagas like Hulu’s new adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
But though the pro-immigrant stance of “American Gods” was not planned in response to the new administration, Mr. Gaiman is “perfectly happy” for any viewers who might take issue with such a position to skip the series. “I can guarantee you wouldn’t enjoy it, so boycotting it is probably a very sensible way to go,” he said.
The showrunners also expanded the roles of memorable but fleetingly seen characters, like Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), a hulking, luckless leprechaun.
Female characters, especially, were broadened to make the story less of “a sausage party,” said Emily Browning, the Australian actress who plays Laura Moon, Shadow’s dead but very active wife. Laura and the ancient love goddess Bilquis, played by the Nigerian actress Yetide Badaki, are much more prominent in the show than they were in the book.
Ms. Badaki was charged with executing one of the book’s most famous and provocative set pieces, in which Bilquis, also known as the Queen of Sheba, ends a one-night stand by ingesting her lover. Outré mechanics notwithstanding, Ms. Badaki related to the underlying premise of a goddess of love struggling in a more emotionally withdrawn era. “If you’ve ever dated online, you definitely get that there is this loss of connection and intimacy,” she said.
While there’s no shortage of indelible imagery, the most powerful examples connect to the show’s deeper themes about faith, identity and modern American values.
The creators are “particularly excited to see how viewers respond to the Salim story,” Mr. Fuller said, a subplot about a gay Muslim man that includes an explicit, transmogrifying sex scene with a genie.
In the second episode, Mr. Jones’s African god, Anansi, drives a ship full of slaves to rebellion with a stirring monologue about the indignities black men will endure in America. At the end of the scene, the 40 actors playing slaves gave Mr. Jones a spontaneous ovation.
“That was our first realization that some of the buttons we were pushing may have been hotter than we anticipated,” Mr. Fuller said.
Mr. Green said: “You never know what people are going to be challenged by,” adding, “so we look forward to them telling us.”