Early in the second season of American Gods, Laura Moon (Emily Browning) gives up and lies down among the flowers. She's chasing after her husband, Shadow (Ricky Whittle). She's also dead. (A leprechaun's lucky gold coin made its way into her corpse at the show's outset, turning her into something that's half avenging angel, half barb-tongued cadaver.) Now, Shadow is in danger and Laura's come to the literal end of the road to save him, so she goes supine. "Just another dead girl in a field," she says—and she may as well be addressing fans of the show itself. Because not so long ago, Gods was that dead girl in a field.
In its first season, the show pulled off a delicate balancing act, turning Neil Gaiman's inventive 2001 novel about a brewing clash between mythology and technology into a vivid, swooping phantasmagoria. Harmony was short-lived, though: Showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, who had written or cowritten six of the season's eight episodes, left the show, reportedly over budget issues and clashes with Gaiman. Gods entered limbo. First Starz handed Gaiman the reins, then longtime Fuller collaborator Jesse Alexander. Then Alexander was fired, injecting more chaos into a project that had already seen delays, reshoots, cast revolts, even a hiatus.
The second season, which nearly two years after the first finally arrived on Starz last night, seemingly has Gaiman as its lone thread of continuity in the writers’ room. Yet, for all the time spent teetering on the brink of oblivion, American Gods has managed to find just enough spark to give it life—even if that spark is, like Laura Moon herself, sometimes feeble and sputtering.
It doesn't take long to realize that while the show has come under new management, it's keen on retaining its visual panache. The opening sequence, which traffics in the same saturated colors and low-angle distortions of episodes past, wastes little time in establishing the new gods' game plan: Mister World (Crispin Glover) tells Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) to find Media, his "best salesman" in recruiting firepower against Wednesday (Ian McShane), Shadow's benefactor. "When the time comes, the gutters will run black with ichorous spume," World seethes, "and the ossuaries shall overflow with his dust." (Gillian Anderson, who played Media, left the show in the offseason. Yes, the show has a solution; no, it's not entirely clear whether the idea is successful.)
Meanwhile, Wednesday (aka Odin) brings Shadow, Laura, and leprechaun Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) to the House on the Rock, a nexus of spiritual energy where he hopes to rally the old gods to bring arms against the new. The first-season gang's all here—Czernobog (Peter Stormare) and Zorya (Cloris Leachman), Mister Nancy (Orlando Jones), Salim (Omid Abtahi), and Jinn (Mousa Kraish). Even Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) shows up uninvited, though her striking a deal with the new gods at the end of season one suggests she's only there for reconnaissance.
Just as the old gods begin to feel some semblance of solidarity, the new gods strike, scattering the core ensemble into a series of fetch quests. Shadow has been taken, and Wednesday sends Laura and Mad Sweeney off to find him; he and Nancy have a mission of their own. And here's where things begin to falter. As a Brit's love letter to Americana, American Gods was in many ways a cosmological Kerouac tale, with Shadow as the dharma bum. Now, the characters disperse and re-permutate with little logic beyond Wednesday's fiat. No matter how commanding McShane and Jones are as Wednesday and Nancy, no matter how enjoyable Mad Sweeney and Laura Moon's sniping is, it's hard not to wonder whether the road trips' destinations will be worth the journey.
Where the second season differs, truly, is its conventionality—an odd property to ascribe to a show where CGI hallucinations run rampant and heads literally explode. An extended torture sequence unlocks flashbacks that take viewers into Shadow's adolescence; Laura professes her love for Shadow so often you can almost hear the This Is Us theme swelling in the background. The show looks great, and the dialog still sings, but eye-candy sequences and rollicking conversations are skin, not skeleton. What's missing in the early episodes is the feeling of narrative audacity that the first season had. Now that the gods have all been introduced, it seems, the march to Ragnarok will be a slow and circuitous one. (In a heartening note for those keeping tabs on Hollywood's own slow march—the one toward gender parity behind the camera—women directed half of the season's eight episodes and wrote or cowrote six of them.)
Reanimation is a difficult prospect for any show. Even beloved favorites like Arrested Development and Community buckled under the weight of picking up where they left off. Given its troubles, it was folly to think that American Gods would return undamaged. Yet its first three episodes are no reason to bury it. Rather than lie down among the flowers, like Laura it's deciding to get up and fight for the soul it once had—and that's a fight I'll watch anytime.
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