We know it’s not healthy to watch too much TV. We were told that as wee little lads enraptured by reruns of “I Love Lucy” on TV Land, and it’s only getting worse as we age.
And yet we’re never going to kick our habit as long as TV keeps giving us such irresistible gifts like Gillian Anderson playing Lucy Ricardo in the most R-rated version of “I Love Lucy” we’ll ever see.
That’s the provocative point of Anderson’s debut on “American Gods.” Co-creators Bryan Fuller and Michael Green know we all worship at the altar of screens big and small, and they know we know it. But they’re not about to let us off the hook.
Sunday night’s episode introduced Media, one of the “new gods” working to win over Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle). Shadow is a mysterious everyman who’s been recruited into a war between otherworldly American idols, and she’s one of those idols who can take the form of famous faces — like Lucy Ricardo.
— Gillian Anderson (@GillianA) May 8, 2017
As Shadow shops for his new boss, Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), one of the store’s TVs talks to him. Specifically, a black-and-white image of Lucy from an episode of “I Love Lucy” begins waxing philosophic about the power of her medium.
“Funny how things that are supposed to make you look good only make you look worse,” Media says, complaining about the 35mm-to-high definition transfer her character had to go through for modern audiences. “I can’t even fill the whole screen.”
With that, Media stretches out her arms and expanded the 4:3 frame to a more millennial-friendly 16:9, and Anderson digs in for one of the best debuts of 2017 TV.
It wasn’t just that Anderson remarkably channeled Lucy Ricardo — not Lucille Ball, as Shadow mistakenly calls her. Yes, her posture, cadence, and accent (remember: Anderson has natural American and English accents, after living in the U.S. and U.K. during her formative years) were delightfully on point, drawing to mind the best of Lucy while infusing her with Media’s charming menace.
But what she tells Shadow, and thus everyone watching at home by default, makes for a fascinating moment of meta TV.
“They sit side by side ignoring each other, and give it up to me,” Media says. “Now they hold a smaller screen in their lap or the palm of their hand so they don’t get bored by the big one.”
Media is actively mocking our disengagement from reality as we disengage from reality.
“Time and attention: better than lamb’s blood,” she says.
— Gillian Anderson (@GillianA) May 7, 2017
When Neil Gaiman created this character, Media spoke to her audience through a novel. Readers may have reflected on their media habits in one way or another, but it wasn’t a 1:1 ratio between medium and message. “American Gods” featured a character — an obviously evil character — comparing watching TV to worshipping a false idol.
And she’s right, assuming the behavior goes to the extreme described. But her appearance only makes the temptation to keep watching stronger. Unlike the disinterested Shadow, who among us would want to switch off a television with Gillian Anderson onscreen? And not just Gillian Anderson, but Anderson portraying a media icon ready to subvert and exceed expectations.
Near the scene’s end, Lucy winks at Shadow and asks, “Hey, you ever wanted to see Lucy’s tits?” Media is appealing to his — and our — weakness even as she calls it out, and, like any grand seductress, she knows what she’s offering is too good to pass up. Both in the show’s reality, where we get to see Lucy unfiltered, and as a knowing audience, where we get to see Anderson subvert and exceed our expectations as an actress, she’s got our time and attention on lockdown.
If either ever asked, we’d probably offer up a lamb just to see more — even though we know it’s wrong.
“American Gods” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Starz. The first two episodes have been released Sunday morning via the Starz app and VOD service.