Back in 2017, brilliant TV producers Bryan Fuller and Michael Green adapted a beloved Neil Gaiman novel into eight episodes of psyche-branding set-piecery. Border fascists killing Mexican Jesus, a prehistoric mammoth-god decomposing on the Bering land bridge, an ancient body-horror orgy dissolving into sexy-violent ’70s disco revolution: I loved season 1 of American Gods without ever fully knowing what the hell was happening. Apparent hero Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) didn’t have a clue either, which was one of the show’s weirdest jokes, and the too-short season kept wandering far afield from Shadow’s travels with Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), filling in the history of Gaiman’s world in breakaway tangents marked “Coming to America” and “Somewhere in America.”
Behind-the-scenes turmoil sent Fuller and Green packing. Nearly two long years later, American Gods returns as a too-familiar tale of superpowered misfits assembling. Mr. Wednesday stages his long-promised meeting of old gods, and it looks like Wrath of the Titans, man, not even Clash of the Titans, all swirly fog-beings declaiming pronouncements in a throne room beyond space-time. Meanwhile, mysterious Mr. World (Crispin Glover) has become the kind of bland villain who delivers nefarious commands — “Recover the package!” — from a shadowy bad-guy HQ.
Hard to know who blame here, and reports of problematic production plagued this second season. But you feel the reduction of ambition. The first two episodes shed the tantalizing (and, presumably, money-burning) “Coming To/Somewhere in America” segments. Scene-stealing Gillian Anderson has taken her talents to Sex Education. There is a lengthy Shadow flashback, the kind of tragic-origin sequence that felt played out when Daredevil did it twice. And there is a whole episode about Shadow getting tortured by bad guys, the kind of go-nowhere violent stall tactic that was already boring on Altered Carbon.
I’m not trying to be glib with these references. The big secret about American Gods is that this whole concept — “the old gods in a secret war with the new gods” — is no longer as unusual as it was when Gaiman wrote his book. McShane’s Wednesday is secretly the Norse god Odin, a deity who literally everyone will recall from key roles in the billion-dollar Thor franchise and the top-selling, trilogy-launching God of War reboot. It is currently easier, in Hollywood, to get $100 million to tell a story about Odin than to get, like, $1 million to tell a realistic story about immigration at our southern border (“realistic” in this case meaning “doesn’t involve Josh Brolin declaring war on some postmodern terrorist-cartel axis of fearmongering evil”).
The twisty genius of Gods’ first season was how it infused the latter reality with the former unreality, deconstructing this continent’s myths and legends, imagining our country as a clash of immigrant tales. It could be obtuse or even incoherent. Season 2 commits a greater sin: It punishingly expository, and boring. “So, what exactly is the House on the Rock?” asks Laura Moon (Emily Browning.) “When people first came to America, they brought us with them,” says Mr. Wednesday, restating the concept loud enough for the cheap seats. At one point in the first two episodes, everyone has to rescue someone from a top-secret facility using, sigh, their super-strength. You want a lot of things from American Gods, but we don’t need The Gifted with swears.
The talented cast is trying hard. Orlando Jones dials his well-dressed deity Mr. Nancy up to 11. And I can’t entirely despise a TV show where Peter Stormare plays a Slavic deathlord who gleefully mumbles, “I am cancer!” But consider yourself warned: Do not worship false Gods. C-
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