American Gods, already introduced and analyzed by Bobby on last month’s review, is a terrific example of modern television. Not only does it feature excellent cinematography, it’s a prime example of TV’s recent fascination with surrealism. Focusing on the mysterious underworld of fantastical superheroes, villains and jokers, it continues the Lynchian tradition of dream sequences and psychedelia recently brought back by this year’s Twin Peaks revival.
Much like the pilot, this new episode opens with a history lesson, a story if you will, of those impacted by the tumultuous annals of American history. While the pilot opened with the story of the Leif Erickson and the Vikings’ discovery of America – the new episode instead focuses on a riveting monologue. Orlando Jones opens the new episode performing an empowering lecture to a group of slaves being transported by the Dutch. He tells of their unfortunate future in America, the saddening condition of slavery and their later indentured servitude. Concluding his fiery speech, he comments on the current political challenges African-Americans continue to face, claiming – “burn this motherfucker DOWN!”. Jones’ sentiment seems to run through the episode – as emotions bubble, seething nefariously under the surface. Things never quite reach a climax but American Gods approaches an emotional crest.
Ricky Whittle returns as Shadow Moon, the ex-con suddenly thrust into the bizarre underground of magical, surrealist characters. Whittle seems to settle into this role, providing more than just the “emotional” glares on the pilot. While his original attempts felt dull and somewhat lifeless, he eases into the role, channeling the intensity of say, The Rock. As his character struggles with more intense issues – like the attempted lynching at the end of the pilot – he slowly starts to build into a more sullen, irate character. He still doesn’t do much – providing Ice Cube-esque mean mugs without the accompanying commentary. However, Whittle’s slight development is positive sign for the show’s direction. And it never feels like he needs to do all that much – as imagery and his dreams still seem to guide the direction of the show.
In episode two, we see Moon and Wednesday continue their trek across the American heartland, as they discover more unusual characters. After a meeting with the sci-fi prankster “technical boy”, Moon is recruited by a televised Lucile Ball, who reveals his newfound powers are rare, valuable and highly desired. Moon then meets up with a soothsayer, who tells his fortune with coffee beans instead of the traditonal tea leaves. A Russian tells a terrible story about the art of killing cows and challenges Moon in a potentially deadly game of checkers. There’s plenty of side stories and hints at an overarching plot – but American Gods seems more focused on atmosphere. It seems as though the show has been focusing on character development, casting aside a need for rigid storylines.
As a result, there’s intriguing moments of dialogue. Moon and Wednesday discuss whether it’s better to be stressed and wanted or peaceful but ignored. The Russian drops some bizarre metaphors before the tense game of checkers. The soothsayer drops haunting hints about Moon’s mother. However, the abundance of these small, heavy moments means the plot suffers significantly. The show focuses far too much on atmosphere and it’s tough to follow exactly what’s happening. It almost feels as though these first two episodes are placeholders, gradually building up to a definitive moment.
The cinematography, though often over-the-top, is fantastic. Slow motion shots, intense splashes of color, frequent flashbacks and vibrant color pallets often dominate the show. Up-close camera work give more intense moments an incredibly grimy and unsettling feel. As a result, American Gods often times feels like it’s more style than substance. But the style itself is fantastic – the production crew clearly put a huge level of effort into the filming.
With shows such as True Detective, Legion and even a revival of Twin Peaks gaining popularity in TV, it appears surrealism is on the rise. Mainstream audience have finally caught up with David Lynch’s bizarre tactics, as dream sequences, psychedelic passages and unusual imagery have become more and more a part of TV. American Gods is a reflection of that fact and with its second episode, proves that with a stricter plot development, it has potential to be a very solid adaptation.