This review contains spoilers.
I try not to read too much into a show’s behind-the-scenes drama, but with something like American Gods, that is harder than it looks, because the results on the screen in the second season have little in common with the magic that happened in the first season. Certainly, the budget seems to remain as high as it always has been, but things feel off, different somehow, and I can’t help but feel like it’s all down to all the trouble season two experienced during filming. After all, reports say that actors were improvising large sections of dialogue to the point where Orlando Jones was given writing credit to avoid clashes with guild rules, shooting without scripts, clashing with producers who were clashing with the network and each other, and so on.
However, the results on the screen suggest that the off-screen drama has an obvious effect on-screen. The creative team tries to cover it up with cool special effects—which work fairly well—but there still feels to be something missing this season, as characters go through the motions, and have long conversations with one another, while failing to retain much interest in the process. Various characters go on missions for their respective bosses—Technical Boy and New Media (Kahyun Kim) and Salim and the Jinn for Wednesday—while other characters (Wednesday, Laura, Sweeney, Shadow) either work for themselves or against their boss, albeit with some nefarious purpose in mind from the one who, in Heather Bellson’s script, has his hand under the skirts.
Like an emoji version of Marilyn Monroe, American Gods is interesting to look at, but flatter than it once was. Argus, the many-eyed God struck down by Zeus for guarding Io from his advances, is explained well enough by Mr Ibis, through the magic of a clockwork nickelodeon, but while the cartoon looks nice, it fails to enthrall, and the fact that Argus was reincarnated in America via Hera’s direct intervention doesn’t line up with the show’s traditional take on the Gods and how they arrived in the New World. He is technically an Old God, but his modern incarnation makes him firmly a New God, something akin to Vulcan transforming from a smith to a gun manufacturer, albeit without the panache of Corben Bernsen. Argus is more akin to a less charismatic grotesque from Guillermo Del Toro, or the Borg Queen from Star Trek: First Contact, and his dialogue doesn’t really matter once his cables come into play and he, ahem, interfaces with New Media.
The pacing of the entire episode feels slow, as if director Deborah Chow was given the command to stretch for time, despite the episode being longer than a standard television hour by its very nature. Some of the slow motion seems unnecessary. The transformation acid trip where New Media introduces herself feels just a little too long. The “sex” scene between Argus and Media also feels a little delayed, as the two trade conversation back and forth while Technical Boy watches and scoffs needlessly in the background.
Certainly, the move is to show that New Media is seductive, and that she’d be a perfect partner for an all-seeing being. What the New Gods have offered Argus would be perfect for him, and the execution is good (but not great). New Media is a seductive sort, as she always has been, though the “upgrade” is a downgrade if only due to replacing Gillian Anderson. That’s a difficult task for any actress, particularly one younger and less experienced than the more forceful, confident Anderson. Old Media was a threat, even when she was offering you the world on a platter; New Media, for the moment, is as much a cypher as the current media marketplace. She grabs attention, but offers nothing in the way of substance as currently written.
American Gods was never exactly a show with a lot of heavy-hitting thoughts. It was fun, and flashy, and entertaining. The knowledge that it dropped tended to be sprinkled in, and it leaned more on amusing than tugging at heart strings. This season, however, the show has tried to make bigger swings, and has mostly missed those, with most of the exchanges being a bit less sparkling than previous seasons, despite the best efforts of the actors.
Only Mad Sweeney’s continued lack of luck seems to carry any sense of fun to it, with the other characters seeming to have even less direction than the comic relief unlucky leprecuaun. Shadow’s grifting attempt being snuffed out by Sam (Devery Jacobs) was amusing enough, but there didn’t seem to be a ton of chemistry between the two of them at first meeting. Certainly, Shadow and Sam pale in comparison to the companionship building between Laura and Sweeney, given Shadow’s eternal straight man quality.
With Shadow drier than normal, and the other characters save Sweeney running out of witty things to say, American Gods is in trouble. The show’s slow pace is only worth it when the journey is resonant, and it seems that season two has been more misses than hits. Despite the short season, there’s time to turn things around, but it might take a little effort. Luckily, there’s a third season coming, and hopefully with a calmer shooting schedule and less upheaval behind the scenes, the show will get back to something closer to the first season.