Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 1 of American Gods. Not seen it? Read our spoiler-free review of the opening episodes here.
It’s been almost two full years since the first season of American Gods wrapped up, with major behind-the-scenes overhauls making the news with relative frequency. Firstly, showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green departed after supposed creative disputes, including disagreements with co-executive producer Neil Gaiman, author of the show’s source novel. Then, a couple of key actors from the first season – specifically, two previous Fuller collaborators in Gillian Anderson and Kristen Chenoweth – opted not to return in solidarity with the departing showrunner. Thirdly, replacement showrunner Jesse Alexander, who had worked on Fuller’s Hannibal as a writer-producer, was reportedly relieved of duty late in the production of Season 2, not allowed to oversee the show to completion despite not being officially fired.
Fans of the first season, or even fans of the book who didn’t like the first season, would be right to be worried about the end result of this fraught return to the screen. That said, some may find this clash between conflicting visions of the future strangely appropriate for the narrative’s battle of wits and woe between gods of the old ways and deities of the new ones.
The good news: Season 2 of American Gods, in its opening two episodes, is not an incoherent mess. The bad news: the production problems are all too evident, and, while it ostensibly looks like the same show, it certainly doesn’t feel like it.
By the time of its closing episodes, the first season was as maddening as it was mystifying and hypnotising. But, crucially, even if it was often taking a hella long time to get to its fireworks factory, it was fascinating in its rejection of the typical premium fantasy-drama rules. It deviated from Gaiman’s novel with compelling tangents, and when translating the source material more faithfully, opted for enjoyably indulgent tableaus that owed more to music videos and paintings than the horror and fantasy media peers of its actual plotting.
Season 2 has most of the key parts still intact, but they’re assembled into a more generic form. Its opening episodes are competent and watchable, but they are by no means thrilling. Structural motifs from Season 1 are abandoned for more generic episode construction. Bar perhaps the very last scene of Episode 2, the direction of the first two episodes is functional, with nary a distinctive moment that doesn’t just feel like an echo of one of Season 1’s obsessively stylised sequences.
The show flows differently, thanks to the reconfiguration of the plot to focus, well, more on plot, instead of mood. But despite putting its characters in constant forward motion and repeatedly spelling out alliances and gripes between them in dialogue, this doesn’t seem like a more propulsive version of the story. For one thing, it’s hard to have much momentum, when major chunks of the opening episodes are spent retconning the end of Season 1 to accommodate the cast departures.
Despite ending Season 1 pledging to join Odin/Wednesday’s (Ian McShane) cause, Easter’s (Kristen Chenoweth) absence in Season 2’s opening meeting of various old gods is explained away by her apparently changing her mind, for now, because Odin ran over some of the rabbits on her property. Meanwhile, Gillian Anderson’s Media was apparently spooked by Odin’s display of powers in the Season 1 finale and has gone into hiding. Chief antagonist Mr. World (Crispin Glover) sends underling Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) to find her so they can resume their cause. New Media, played by a new actor, isn’t set to appear until Episode 3, meaning this subplot has more wheel-spinning than the oddly high number of automobile mishaps in these two episodes.
The actors the show still has are continuing to do fine work with what they’re given, but you can tell that certain hams in the ensemble – chiefly, McShane and Peter Stormare – are trying a little too hard to inject some eccentricity into expository scenes that would previously have been made weird through the surrounding aesthetic. The visual flash and sounds might seem the same, but the energy behind them has been drained. Let us pray that the rest of Season 2 sees a resurrection of American Gods’ spirit.