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After a creative exodus, is the magic gone from American Gods?

Ricky Whittle stars as Shadow Moon in American Gods
Photo: Starz
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This article reveals plot points of the first and second seasons of American Gods.

Quarreling factions, an obstacle-laden path, and Orlando Jones weaving a tale: What describes the on-camera action of Starz’s American Gods adaptation could just as easily be applied to reports of behind-the-scenes turmoil that emerged in the nearly two years since the show debuted. Season two, which premieres March 10, arrives with no real showrunner, after a ton of reshoots and the ouster of three helmers. In the wake of a Hollywood Reporter feature detailing the chaotic production—including Jones, who plays Mr. Nancy, also being tasked with on-set rewrites so the show wouldn’t violate guild law after actors began writing their own dialogue—the cast and executive producers, including Neil Gaiman, have asked for viewers to keep the faith. Having seen the first three episodes of the new season, I can tell you this is a big ask.

When it debuted in 2017, the fantasy drama—developed for TV by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, with Gaiman co-executive producing—was well received, including by yours truly. Season one of American Gods had some pacing issues, not unlike its source material, but Fuller and Green, who wrote the first four episodes, delivered something worthy of worship. Pairing sumptuous visuals with rich characterization and deft shifts in tone, the first season felt both faithful and unique to Gaiman’s work. It gave us Gillian Anderson and Kristin Chenoweth as alternately beguiling and havoc-wreaking gods, and a pitch-perfect performance from Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday. Season one ended with sights set on House On The Rock and the gauntlet being thrown (some would say not a moment too soon). There was a fair amount of reimagining, particularly in the expanded roles for Laura Moon (Emily Browning) and Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), but even that felt in the spirit of the novel: Fuller and Green had updated a fable for a contemporary setting, and created their own compelling, syncretic story.

That vision and its reception came at considerable cost, literally—THR’s sources said Fuller and Green had gone $30 million over budget, despite having to cut the ninth episode. Starz renewed American Gods in May 2017, before season one had finished airing, but by November of that year, they’d cut ties with Fuller and Green. The ousted showrunners described their departures as firings, but Starz and Fremantle Media, the production company behind the show, have refused to use that term. It was an incredibly disappointing development, for us, anyway—Fuller and Green had effectively captured the scope of Gaiman’s novel, given greater dimension to characters whose potential was previously only hinted at, and made the most of his detours, which they often turned into highlights of the series via their “Coming To America” intros. Whatever the official story is, it also wasn’t entirely unheard of; Fuller, at least, has departed other high-profile projects, including Star Trek: Discovery, over creative differences just as they were getting started.

Gaiman seemed to endorse most of their creative direction, despite the occasional disagreement. But according to that THR report, he felt Fuller and Green were deviating too far from his book. So Jesse Alexander, who’d previously worked with Fuller on Hannibal and boarded Discovery while the latter was still at the helm, was promoted to showrunner, which is when the shit really began to roll downhill. Alexander reportedly got into “screaming matches” with McShane, the episode number was cut from 10 down to eight, and there were issues with Alexander’s scripts from the first table read. Then there was the question of which vision to be loyal to—Starz wanted American Gods to continue in the vein established by Fuller and Green, and found Alexander’s take too “conventional,” despite the support he received from Gaiman. The show had to go on hiatus before airing a single new episode, and Alexander was relieved of his showrunning duties, though once more, Starz and Fremantle avoided describing the situation as a firing.

A loss of faith and direction also seems perfectly in line with the source material, itself a partial exploration of finding meaning by attributing it. But we’re not talking about a character beat or storyline—no one really seems to be at the wheel of American Gods season two. Gaiman helped write the season-two premiere, “House On The Rock,” but has otherwise had his hands full with his other adaptation, Good Omens, for Amazon; he’s also been unclear on the extent of his role in the season as a whole. The off-screen tumult has bled onto the screen, with the new season suffering from a lack of vision even as it’s narrowed its focus to adhere closer to Gaiman’s book, which is reportedly how Alexander got into Gaiman’s good graces. Worse, the saga of the embattled production occasionally makes for better storytelling than the new episodes. But at least starting the season off at the fireworks factory was a smart move by Alexander, assuming it was in fact his choice.

The premiere, written by Gaiman and Alexander and directed by Christopher J. Byrne (who also serves as a producer), is the most dazzling of the first three episodes, but even it feels like it’s getting by on residual momentum. “House On The Rock” finds Wednesday—or, now that the secret’s out, Odin—Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), Laura, and Mad meet up with Mr. Nancy to take the other old gods’ temperatures on declaring all-out war against the upstarts led by Mr. World (Crispin Glover). The exposition-heavy script addresses the departures of Anderson and Chenoweth in quick, inelegant fashion (albeit without touching on the agricultural devastation Ostara left in her wake), and the dialogue doesn’t get any more nuanced from there. Characters talk of “marshalling their forces” while literally doing so; Odin reiterates the season-one through-line “old forgotten gods in a land without gods”; a deity solemnly intones something about “love and war” as if it were an original observation.

Along with much of the cast, Byrne is one of the holdovers from the first season, and he makes great use of the new setting, capturing the somewhat off-putting whimsy of House On The Rock and helping Wednesday make the case for roadside attractions being modern-day temples. The views from the many cars driven by the combatants are as picturesque as ever; in the premiere especially, they have a postcard quality. There are traces of the visual language established by Fuller, Green, and season-one director David Slade, most notably in the trip to another plane to meet the rest of the old gods who have gathered to hear Wednesday out. But they recede as the season goes on, giving way to a much more straightforward interpretation of Gaiman’s words. When Shadow’s upbringing is revealed, it’s in a series of dutiful flashbacks that are short on emotional resonance and directorial flair.

Swapping style for substance is a trade that Gaiman and any viewers who felt the first season was more concerned with finding creative ways to depict bloodlettings would be happy to make. But so far, it looks like they’ve been sold a bill of goods—American Gods has lost its mesmerizing interludes and gorgeous compositions, and gained little forward movement in their place. Mr. World and Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) recite their plan to wipe out the old gods as if they were ordering their usual at a diner; when they’re at last joined by a new incarnation of Media (Kahyun Kim), they spend several moments talking about her newness. The first third of season one didn’t make huge strides in plotting, either, but at least it gave us “Head Full Of Snowand its incredibly romantic and erotic human-ifrit sex scene. There’s nothing close to that compelling in these first three episodes, though at least Salim and the Jinn (real-life buddies Omid Abtahi and Mousa Kraish, respectively) are back and riding around in a motorcycle-sidecar like two hot paranormal investigators who are also in love (feel free to run with that idea, Fremantle). Laura and Mad’s sparring, verbal and otherwise, is reliably fun; McShane holds court once more, conveying both primordial power and a backed-into-a-corner nastiness. Perhaps the brightest spot is the expansion of Bilquis, who shows more foresight and adaptability than anyone else, even Odin; Badaki is as spell-binding as ever in the role, even as she taps into a new source of power.

But the cracks in the show’s foundation, once smoothed over by panache and wonderful performances, are now as plain as day—and spreading. Despite his big Easter epiphany, Shadow is still playing catch-up with Odin’s machinations and the coming war. Whittle, whose hands have been tied by virtue of having the most interior role in the show, isn’t given much more to work with this go-round. He finally meets Sam Black Crow (Devery Jacobs), but their pairing, in the third episode at least, is hardly memorable. And for all the protestations of getting back on the book’s track, this second season isn’t poised to advance the story much further than Cairo, even though there were reports in 2016 that the plan was to cover Lakeside in season two (which means no pasties, alas).

It’s entirely possible that Alexander or Gaiman or Byrne or whoever exactly is in charge—according to THR’s TV editor Lesley Goldberg, though a third season is being mulled, no showrunner is attached—has dreamed up an arc or two that culminates satisfyingly in Cairo. American Gods has already proven it can thrive even in the face of behind-the-scenes scrambling; due to budget concerns, Fuller and Green had to reframe their penultimate episode in 2017 as the season-one finale. Star Trek: Discovery has been through roughly the same number of showrunners in the same number of seasons, and it’s returned to acclaim. But right now, the second season that Alexander et al. have cobbled together is concerned only with covering distance—there’s little magic left in what was once one of TV’s most promising supernatural dramas.