“Stories are truer than the truth.”
Producing an adaptation of a novel or series of novels can be at best a tricky thing, and at worst a poisoned chalice. Just look at the recent example we had with Game Of Thrones, where the TV series got far ahead of the books, and it produced a final episode which satisfied precisely no-one. Fans will be the ones to shout loudest and longest if what they see doesn’t match up to their visions, or live up to their expectations.
Readers of Neil Gaiman’s book American Gods must have thought they’d landed on their feet when US network Starz brought out the first season, which was not only well received amongst fans, but widely acclaimed to boot. In fact, Gaiman’s fans have had something of a purple patch of late, most recently with Amazon Studios and BBC Studios’ co-production of Good Omens. However, there’s always the big challenge of that ‘difficult second album’, so the sophomore outing for American Gods was always going to be awaited with bated breath, to see whether lightning could strike twice.
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Cards on the table, I’ve never read any of Neil Gaiman’s books. Prior to this, my only exposure to his work was the BBC version of Neverwhere, and his two episodes for Doctor Who. As I don’t have any form of knowledge about, or attachment to, what was on the page, I can only judge the show on its own merits: it lives and dies on how coherent it is on the screen, and not on how faithful it may or may not be to the original text. Season 1 of American Gods was something of a barnstormer by any definition, and managed to cram so much into those eight episodes.
However, rumblings of creative issues and behind-the-scenes problems on the second season didn’t bode well for what the finished product would potentially be, with reports of the original showrunners being replaced due to scheduling conflict issues, and neither Gillian Anderson nor Kristin Chenoweth being able to return to the series for the same reason. Combined with all that came tales of the production running weeks behind, the replacement showrunner being fired, and the episode count being cut back. Perhaps someone must have angered the Gods (or, at least, the Powers-That-Be).
For anyone unfamiliar with the premise of the show, it turns out that the Gods are real, and they live and work amongst us (if you’re in the US, that is). Alongside the Old Gods of religion and culture, brought to America by immigrants, there are also the New Gods, which represent popular trends in modern society to which we devote so much of our time and attention to as to constitute a form of worship. The Gods both Old and New are vying for our devotion, and are on the verge of an all-out war.
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The primary character is Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), a former convict whose wife Laura (Emily Browning) was killed in a car accident while he was in prison; the kicker for Shadow is that she was having an affair at the time. After burying Laura, she gets resurrected by a Leprechaun’s lucky coin, and finds herself drawn to Shadow by a mysterious light, while also coming to terms with her new life after death. Shadow gets recruited to be the bodyguard of Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), who turns out to actually be Odin from Norse mythology.
At the end of Season 1, war was declared between the Old and New Gods, with Mr. Wednesday intent on mustering his forces in order to face the final battle for total supremacy. Given how successful all the worldbuilding had been in the initial run, plus the perceived urgency of preparing for war, Season 2’s pace feels surprisingly languid at times, with lots of diversions, lacking the momentum you might expect. That’s not to say nothing happens, as it most certainly does: it just takes a lot longer than you might expect.
The cleverness of Gaiman’s creation is in his fusion of mythologies and religions from all across the globe, bringing them together seamlessly and organically, so a Norse God can work perfectly alongside the Queen of Sheba, or a Leprechaun, and none of them seem either incompatible or mutually exclusive. The core premise is carried by some strong performances, with McShane in particular shining as Wednesday/Odin; along with his work on the John Wick trilogy and Deadwood, it seems he can’t set a foot wrong.
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Another wonderful bit of casting comes with Crispin Glover playing Mr. World, leader of the New Gods. He’s about as far removed as you can get from the nervy, cuckolded George McFly in Back To The Future, and manages to imbue every one of his scenes with a feeling of pure dread and menace; Glover constantly gives his all, and that’s something probably best evidenced by his being the most (maybe only) memorable thing about the movie adaptations of Charlie’s Angels, which were otherwise a forgettable – and best overlooked – mess.
At the heart of the series are Shadow and Laura Moon, and thankfully both Ricky Wilson and Emily Browning manage to do a wonderful job of bringing them to life (which is ironic in Laura’s case). Shadow is the solid moral centre throughout all the strange things happening around him, and even though he has a momentary pause or waver at times, he’s solid and dependable in his convictions. Browning manages to make Laura a sympathetic character, as it would be easy to dislike her based upon how she’s presented, but Browning makes it possible to look past that, and root for her and Shadow to get back together.
The series is by no means perfect, and it suffers for the loss of Chenoweth and – in particular – Anderson, whose absences in the story are keenly felt; the replacement for Anderson as the character of Media is perfectly acceptable for the redrafted role she’s given, but sadly lacks the versatility of Anderson, and it shows. The pacing of the season does also seem a little off, and while some of the sidesteps we get into flashbacks and backstories are necessary and welcome, the placing of them does at times slow the story down significantly, to the point where it’s difficult to resume the sense of forward progression.
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As far as special features go, the Blu-ray is somewhat lacking, as all we get is a Comic Con panel moderated by Patton Oswalt, and a far-too-short look at Neil Gaiman’s America, giving insight into where some of the inspiration for the tale came from. The latter is by far the most interesting of the two features, and could have easily been far longer; as such, it comes across as almost an afterthought, as though the makers just needed to put something on the disc as content. It’s disappointing that such a lack of care and attention has gone into this side of things, given how lovingly curated the show itself is.
For all its production difficulties, and in spite of it being a slight anti-climax after the blistering initial outing, Season 2 of American Gods is still visually stunning and immensely watchable. Let us pray that Season 3 doesn’t see things slipping any further.
American Gods Season 2 is out now on Blu-ray and DVD.