tv review

Good Lord, What Happened to American Gods?

Photo: Ian Watson/Starz

It seems only fitting that American Gods season two on Starz was born in the battle between two sets of creators. Unfortunately what’s onscreen shows evidence of struggle. It’s an imposing ruin.

First, the background. Bryan Fuller (Hannibal, Pushing Daisies) and Michael Green (Kings) oversaw the R-rated, philosophically minded fantasy-drama during its first go-round, but left after creative disputes, including a rejected request for a larger per-episode budget (it already cost a reported $10 million per episode) and disagreements with co-executive producer Neil Gaiman, author of the same-titled source novel. Jesse Alexander, a writer-producer on Fuller’s Hannibal, took over as showrunner but was relieved of duty late during the production of season two: not officially fired, but not allowed to oversee the show anymore. According to The Hollywood Reporter, “Fremantle, the show’s producing studio, would rather exile Alexander than endure the negative attention that would come with dismissing a second showrunner in two seasons.” There were reports of extensive reshoots designed to fix story problems, as well as actors rewriting dialogue on set.

Given all this, it’s a minor miracle that American Gods is watchable at all. But watchable is a far cry from thrilling. While Fuller and Green’s version was deliberately molasses-slow and brazenly self-indulgent — and leaned a bit too hard on quasi-Tarantino tough-guy sass for this viewer’s taste — it was resolute in its determination to not follow the premium-cable drama playbook. Each episode started with a parable of sorts, establishing the importance of a particular god in his or her culture. As old gods wandered the country trying to enlist others of their kind in a coming war against the new gods, Fuller and Green and their collaborators served up a series of voluptuous tableaus that owed as much to music videos and modernist painting as they did to ancient folktales and adult-oriented superhero films. Most striking of all was the way the series imbued even functional expository conversations with an undercurrent of impending sexual release that went beyond polymorphously perverse and into the realm of mythology and dreams: The show was gay, bi, straight, omnivorous, and there were moments — particularly during intimate conversations between stalwart savior Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) and his dead but still devoted and superhumanly strong wife, Laura (Emily Browning) — where necrophilia seemed like different strokes for different folks.

The second iteration of American Gods flows differently, mainly because of how Gaiman, the now-exiled Alexander, and the writing staff have reconfigured the plot. Most of the first episode is dedicated to getting the old gods together into an Avengers-like team. It consists of Shadow and Laura Moon; the loquacious trickster Mr. Wednesday, a.k.a. Odin (Ian McShane); the brawny, chain-smoking leprechaun Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), who is smitten with Laura even as he constantly insults her for being dead; the West African–Caribbean storyteller Mr. Nancy, a.k.a. Anansi (Orlando Jones); the magnetic, gay ifrit Jinn (Mousa Kraish), who rides around the country on a big American motorcycle, his boyfriend Salim (Omid Abtahi) in a sidecar; the sexually voracious Yemeni goddess Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), formerly the Queen of Sheba; the Slavic guardian Zorya (Cloris Leachman); and the hammer-swinging Czernobog (Peter Stormare). Meanwhile, chief new gods antagonist Mr. World (Crispin Glover, radiating menace) regroups to take on his adversaries, directing and mocking underlings like Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) and New Media (Kahyun Kim), a schoolgirl-uniformed anime jailbait sexpot. (The latter doesn’t appear until episode three; she replaces Media, played by Gillian Anderson, a Hannibal veteran who — like co-star Kristen Chenoweth, the one-time Easter — left the show out of loyalty to Fuller.)

This time, there are fewer longueur-studded interludes where the characters are allowed to gab, flirt, taunt, and test each other, and otherwise just be. More energy is expended spelling out allegiances and animosities, though this doesn’t result in a more propulsive, eventful-seeming show, nor does keeping all of the characters constantly in forward motion by way of interstate travel. Aside from a few spectacular, special-effects-driven sequences — such as the old gods traveling through a dimensional portal triggered by a ride on a psychedelic carousel, and a crosscut action sequence near the end of the second episode that climaxes with massive vehicular destruction — the filmmaking is functional, in contrast to the fussed-over and obsessive visuals of season one.

The one storytelling area where it feels as if a net gain has been made is the effect of racial and ethnic politics on individual characters. There’s an extended subplot in the third episode about the marginalization of Cherokees and Native Americans generally, and Shadow gets a long flashback to his childhood in 1990s New York that establishes him as a biracial teenager, raised in France by an African-American mother who believes in the promise of America, even though the country has brought little but misery to people who look like her and her son. But these aspects, too, often feel more stated than dramatically explored.

The most striking change is the show’s libido-ectomy. The new Gods has been drained of sexual energy, save for clichéd heteronormative throwaways like a shot of a female pole dancer writhing in a nightclub. Although there’s plenty of talk of carnality, including Sweeney teasing Moon about still having the hots for his decaying wife, we don’t see anything anymore. Everybody keeps their clothes on this time, including Laura; Bilquis, who in season one was presented as a glamorous, soft-core disco succubus; and Jinn and Salim, who hooked up last season in one of the most explicit, rapturously photographed man-on-man sex scenes in TV history, but whose physical relationship is here reduced to another character commenting that he smells sex on them, and Jinn loudly proclaiming that he likes to fuck men. (Glad we settled that! Thanks, show!)

The violence, too, lacks that disquieting Fuller-esque sense of spiritual communion that distinguished season one’s bloodletting, as well as the gory bits on Hannibal (another casually ambi-sexual series, and one that — amazingly — ran on a commercial broadcast network). Flesh still gets rent, but it feels more like standard slasher film or hyperviolent video-game stuff, like the mass shooting that includes graphic close-ups of bullets destroying skulls, and a shot of Laura’s booted foot crushing a man’s head like a melon. Rather than challenging viewers to sift through their mixed responses — as in that spectacular season-one sequence where Laura proves her love for Shadow by literally tearing his assailants limb from limb — this sort of violence feels more like the result of box-checking in the name of servicing fans. But fans of what?

The show only seems as if it’s capable of arousal when it’s photographing Whittle posing in too-tight dress shirts and khakis, or strung up on a high-tech torture rack, arms spread out as in the da Vinci drawing that inspired the logo for Westworld. Whittle is the most impressive TV-leading-man-as-sculptural-object since Jon Hamm on Mad Men, but this still feels like a misuse, or underuse, of his magnetism. And the viewer might realize during these moments that we’re more than a season in, and we still don’t really have any sense of Shadow as a person, except that he’s sad that his wife is dead, that he had a troubled childhood, and that he’s the protagonist because the show says he is.

The overall effect is that of an imperfect series with a powerful, instantly recognizable aesthetic and personality being remade so as to remove the aesthetic and personality while leaving most of the problem spots. In a show filled with proudly “big” actors, you don’t expect to see anyone overdoing it, but that’s sometimes the feeling here. There are even times when McShane and Stormare seem to be trying too hard to inject unruly, eccentric energy into scenes that are mainly about conveying information, giving their eyebrows and their sneers a calisthenic workout. Many of the scenes haven’t been thought through in terms of the fine points of the characters’ relationships, which is what every good TV series, and every decent piece of fiction, is ultimately about. Given Gaiman’s increased involvement and creative control, one has to conclude that the series is now at least somewhat closer to what he wanted it to be in the first place. But it’s further away from being compelling, and that’s a problem that the entire creative team, or what’s left of it, will need to solve. Let’s all offer a prayer to the old and new gods that they figure it out in time for season three.

Good Lord, What Happened to American Gods?