A meh season start will shake your faith in it.
Adapted from Neil Gaiman's American Gods, this is a world where the gods from the old world are forgotten and are replaced with newer ones. After the revelation of his true identity, Mr Wednesday (Ian McShane) and his bodyguard, Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) continues to gather the old gods for war. Meanwhile, the new gods, headed by Mr World, the god of globalisation, plans to strike first through Shadow.
Here be spoilers…
What we like
I first knew of Ian McShane on Deadwood when he played Al Swearengen. There's a charm to how he speaks that's equally hypnotic and menacing. Like you're dipping your toe in the wide open blue unaware of the sharks beneath. McShane carries that magnetism to American Gods. As Mr Wednesday, he cajoles you with honeyed promises and flattery. It's a con game and you're the mark. You know this but you're willing to play sucker just to see how it'll end.
Orlando Jones' character, Mr Nancy has more screentime for this season. As the Gahanian god, Anansi, Jones, in his loud suits, chews the scenery. And there's Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) and Laura Moon (Emily Browning). The erstwhile wife of Shadow, Moon died until she's reanimated by Sweeney's gold coin. Without his gold coin, Mad Sweeney is hounded by bad luck but he can't just tear the coin away from Moon, it has to be given freely. So, you have the hapless Mad Sweeney at Moon's back and call, like they are a travelling double-act. It's fun to watch the two of them play off each other.
What made the first season of American Gods so wonderful is the helming by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green. Fuller takes most of the credit here for the optics of American Gods—slow-motion eviscerations, saturated bloodbaths, epileptic-inducing strobes; Fuller's surreal visuals are something out from a higher plane of existence. Even with the original showrunners' absence, the aesthetics continue unencumbered.
Which brings us to the next point.
What we didn't like
Yeah, it's still a feast for the eyes but it feels like a very good copy of what Fuller and Green do. I couldn't put a finger to it until I reviewed previous episodes and come to the realisation that while images take centre stage, it's the other minute details that buttress it.
Take the following scene from episode six of the last season. This is where Vulcan (played by Corbin Bernsen) tells Mr Wednesday and Shadow that he stayed relevant by having people worship him through "firepower instead of the power of fire".
There's the ominous setting of stuffed trophies and guns; Vulcan wields a gun; the light casts portentous shadows—it's visually arresting. But it's heightened by the discordant soundtrack; by the close-up of the cartridges; by how the scene is cut.
There weren't those elements in the first episode of the second season. It's pretty, yes but it felt like makeup on a corpse.
There were reports about Neil Gaiman's complaints about the TV show not being faithful to the source material. This sort of kvetches is a common refrain with other writers like Stephen King and PL Travers. But I'm of the camp that any literary adaptation to another medium shouldn't be predicated on 'faithfulness', it should be about translating the story essence to a different medium. If you want to stay true to the book, may I suggest, sticking to the book?
After what Fuller and Green had set up in the last season, Gaiman needs to write around it. Along with Fuller and Green's exodus from the show, Kristen Chenoweth, who played Easter, and Gillian Anderson, who played Media, left as well, out of loyalty. After an amicable alliance with Mr Wednesday in the last episode of the last season, the first episode of the second has Easter's withdrawal from the meeting of the old gods chalked up to "because Mr Wednesday ran over some rabbits (and we know how much Easter loves her rabbits) and that's why she's isn't coming."
And Media will be replaced with New Media (Kahyun Kim), who changes her identity after witnessing Mr Wednesday'strue form. It makes sense that this new itineration is the new worship of social media and while Kim's performance is commendable, it is eclipsed by Anderson's sensual performance. Like my mother said, "be so good that you're irreplaceable" and Anderson was.
Of course, this is based on preview episodes of the second season. Maybe it'll pick up. Maybe it will turn around. I'm willing to play the rube just to see how it all ends.
What to look out for
It's fun trying to suss out which god is which during the first episode's pow-wow. But you'll get to see more gods, both old and new, throughout the rest of the season. The jury is still out on whether the unknown god that's briefly mentioned in the American Gods novel will appear in the TV adaptation. Even with Gaiman taking a more hands-on approach to the show, a sighting of the unknown god might lean towards the negative. (Or maybe, he will appear but given the god's ability to make people forget him after meeting him, maybe he'll make an appearance but we won't know it.) If you're interested in speculating on the unknown god's identity, have at it.