It’s never a good sign for a show when more of the buzz between seasons has been about its tumultuous production and behind-the-scenes drama than about its plot or characters. Such has been the case with Starz’s American Gods, a show that had a critically successful first season but was derailed when showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green were let go and replaced by one of Fuller’s collaborators, Jesse Alexander. The story went that Fuller and Green wanted more money for an already expensive show, and that Neil Gaiman wanted a little more control. The show still went massively over budget, and the cast and Starz were so dissatisfied with Alexander’s work that he didn’t finish the season. What’s the lesson everyone should have learned, especially now that we’ve seen the season-two premiere? They should have just paid Fuller and Green.
Watching “House on the Rock” is not unlike watching Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon right after watching Michael Mann’s Manhunter. Both come from the same source material and feature the same characters and plot points. But they’re very different experiences. There’s something depressingly hollow about the new American Gods. Yes, the cast is still great, and they are the main reason we’re all going to keep watching, with the hope that this show finds its footing again, but “House on the Rock” often feels as dead as Laura Moon (Emily Browning). The heart is missing. It’s cold and over-expository, lacking the hypnotic tone of the first season and even undermining some of the character development from last season. Even Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) looks bored.
From the very first scene, it’s easy to tell that this is more Heroes than Hannibal, now. Gone is the structure in which Fuller and Green would open with parables of Gods, as happened throughout season one. There’s no time for symbolism. Instead, we open with Mr. World (Crispin Glover) and Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) racing from the scene of the Easter Event that ended season one. With New Goddess Media gone — as Gillian Anderson has left the show — Mr. World needs to find a new New Media, and he needs the tools of the underground secret ops location known as Black Briar to find them.
Meanwhile, we return to our protagonists — Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), Laura Moon, and Mad Sweeney — all on the run from the events of the season-one finale. They’re headed to the House on the Rock in Wisconsin, where we saw Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) headed in the finale. This is where the great meeting that Mr. Wednesday has been trying to coordinate will go down. We do get a little of a narrated story on the history of the House on the Rock as Bilquis arrives to find Salim (Omid Abtahi) and Jinn (Mousa Kraish) already there.
The “God Scoobs” gain another member when the quartet picks up Anansi (Orlando Jones) and arrives at the House. Laura and Mad aren’t allowed in, as they’re not Gods, and Easter is basically written off the show with a weird line about bunnies — Kristen Chenoweth won’t be returning either.
A dozen Gods make it to the House, including the hammer-wielding Czernobog (Peter Stormare) and Mr. Wednesday’s favorite gal, Zorya Vechernyaya (Cloris Leachman). Mr. Wednesday has a brief encounter with Bilquis, who was not invited, but he allows her in. It’s kind of sad to see Bilquis reduced from a mysterious, ultrasexual, man-eating God to the flat character in this scene, even if Badaki remains one of the most interesting actors on the show.
Things are moving along more or less as expected at this point in “House on the Rock,” even if the destruction of the opening sequence is disappointing and some of the dialogue is flat. Fans often expect a bit of retread in a season premiere, especially when it’s coming almost two years after the previous season. Where “House on the Rock” really goes off the rails is in the centerpiece “meeting” scene, which takes place in Mr. Wednesday’s head.
First, the crew of Gods and Shadow ride a carousel, which speeds up to the point that they enter Wednesday’s dreamscape, which looks a lot like the Viking origins of Odin (and recalls the opening scene of the series). Bilquis gets a mundane exchange about how “true believers passed away or stopped believing,” and then the meeting gets underway, complete with fire eyes and dull CGI. Not only does it lack the hypnotic look of anything from season one, but the dialogue here is flat and expository when it needs to be complex and symbolic. It gets worse when Shadow gives a speech about his mother and faith with a line that feels more fit for God Friended Me than American Gods: “Take the chance to be worthy of their belief.” Somehow, this convinces Wednesday, and everyone retreats to a Wisconsin buffet restaurant to discuss further.
The gang is getting ready for war by eating cheese curds when Mr. World uses Black Briar to instruct Mr. Town to execute the order and “recover the package.” Shots ring out and people in the restaurant start getting killed in a mass shooting. Shadow gets to the gunman, but he’s sucked up into the sky as in an X-Files abduction. As the Gods survey the carnage, they discover that Zorya is dead. Czernobog curses whoever did this and Laura marches off to look up into the sky, seemingly angry at whoever did this. I feel her pain.
• The name of the spy program in the Bourne movies was Blackbriar. Coincidence that it’s an underground surveillance/communication op here, too?
• There’s another interesting real-world connection to those scenes. Technical Boy holds up a paper clip to allow access at Black Briar and Mr. World references Operation Paper Clip. Wondering what that is? Read on.
• Of course, the House on the Rock is totally a real place and even has the world’s largest indoor carousel, although you probably can’t ride it like they do on the show. You can stay there overnight!
• The shooter’s bullets say “Deus Mortuorum,” which translates to “God is dead.”
• While I respect not going with obvious artists, opening the season of a show with a lead named Shadow Moon with a song called “I Cast a Lonesome Shadow” is a bit eye-roll-inducing. Better music cues in the diner: “The Fool” as we first get there and “Everybody Walkin’ This Land” during the massacre.
• Where do we go from here? There’s still SO much potential in this show in terms of character and theme that one hopes it finds its footing again soon. I’ll be here to see if it does. Right now, the carousel at the House on the Rock is spinning way too fast, and we don’t blame anyone for wanting to get off.