‘American Gods’ Season 2 Continues a Surreal War of Deities

Roaming deities both old and new are still at war for a second season of Starz’s “American Gods.” It’s been almost two years since the first season adapted the cult novel by Neil Gaiman into a surreal vision that was part adventure, part fever dream. Much of its trippy ambiance was due to co-showrunner Bryan Fuller and his producing partner Michael Green. When Fuller and Green suddenly left due to budgetary disputes, the show’s future was up in the air. But now Jesse Alexander is at the helm and is keeping the show visually wild, but settling for a more straight forward style in the storytelling.

We’re back on the road with Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) who is driving down Middle America with Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), who revealed himself last season to be Nordic god Odin. Along for the ride are also tough guy leprechaun Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) and Shadow Moon’s deceased, but walking and talking wife Laura (Emily Browning). Mr. Wednesday is on the warpath, seeking an alliance with old gods to take on new, modern ones led by Mr. World (Crispin Glover). So far Mr. Wednesday has maintained an alliance with Yemeni goddess Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), Slavic guardian Zorya (Cloris Leachman) and Jinn (Mousa Kraish). Wednesday’s first stop in his current drive is to the “House on the Rock,” a strange getaway in the mountains. The plan is to get on a carousel that will transport these supernatural beings into another realm to try and recruit other gods to their cause. While this is happening, Mr. World is running around with minion Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) in search of the deity Media (played last season by a departed Gillian Anderson), now named New Media (Kahyun Kim). World also has a plan to target Shadow Moon and disrupt Wednesday’s operation.

Fans of the first season of “American Gods” will instantly notice a change of tone. Although Neil Gaiman remains part of the showrunner team, including doing writing on the scripts, Jesse Alexander is doing away with much of the Bryan Fuller effect. If Fuller was known for his surreal flights of fancy, allowing scenes to evolve and flow in dreamlike arias, Alexander is more interested in accelerating the pace. The first three episodes of the season become more of a conventional action/adventure series about good guys versus bad. But much of the show’s unique visual texture is kept intact, along with space for a bit of philosophizing. The opening scenes of the premiere follow Shadow Moon’s car through a miniature map, and the House on the Rock is designed like a gothic, mad circus environment worthy of Alejandro Jodorowsky. When Mr. Wednesday and his comrades get on the carousel and spin into a cosmic trip, the visuals become truly hallucinatory. Some moments, such as a conversation between Mr. Wednesday and Zorya, are filmed with a beautiful elegance in the production design. It would be too jarring to abandon the palettes Fuller designed for the show, which is itself based on a book that reads like a mad vision. Peak TV shows like this one, “Westworld” and “Legion,” have a way of overcoming their narrative weaknesses with visuals that shame even what we get these days at the movies.

The plotting itself becomes less of a maze. Visually trippy moments like a journey into Wednesday’s memories, set in a Viking locale, are simply used to advance the plot. Wednesday, now one-eyed Odin, laments to other gods present from Africa and Asia that Americans are abandoning them, casting them aside for the new, glitzier gods based on modern-day passions. We then move into a diner where deities can even be waitresses. If Fuller would have turned this into a long, meandering detour (like the chess game in season one), here it leads to an action scene where a sniper sent by Mr. World takes out someone from Wednesday’s team while Shadow Moon gets zapped up by some bright light. Now the gods are becoming more like something out of Marvel, with a new team member, Mama-ji (Sakina Jaffrey) telling Wednesday she’s ready now to cut off heads and set the world aflame, if she can swap shifts at the diner. Czernobog (Peter Stormare) has a great moment where he vows his hammer will split mountains, and he tells Wednesday America basically stinks.

Much of the sexual charge of the first season is also abandoned to focus on more conventional character development. Bilquis still makes allusions to silken beds for making love once in a while, Wednesday bugs Shadow Moon about pining for a walking dead wife and it’s obvious Mad Sweeney still has a thing for Laura. But what matters now is Mr. World’s plans and also Shadow Moon’s background. The second episode goes into a long flashback about Shadow Moon’s childhood as a mixed kid who was raised in France, then moves to America where he is bullied by urban bullies. This is interesting material but for now unnecessary, it adds little to the overall panorama of gods at war. Jinn’s relationship with Salim (Omid Abtahi) is also reduced to a sidekick arrangement, with Salim nagging Jinn about helping him in this current battle and Jinn being reluctant. It’s quite a change from the highly erotic moments of last season.

Despite the tone changes, “American Gods” still proves to be a visually stimulating fable. There is also Ian McShane with his eternally enigmatic presence. What felt like an engaging arthouse experiment the first time around now becomes a classic clash of super beings. How it turns out remains to be seen, but for now it still manages to keep the faith alive.

American Gods” season two premieres March 10 and airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on Starz.