Apologies for my bluntness, but it has to be said: It's a miracle American Gods is a show that exists on television in 2019.
An adaptation of Neil Gaiman's popular novel of the same name, the Starz drama debuted in 2017 to mostly positive reviews (I called it a beautiful but confusing piece of art). Well constructed and with striking visuals that revealed original co-showrunner Bryan Fuller had been allowed to indulge himself in his more exuberant tendencies, the series probably had the potential to become something of a prestige drama for the pay cable network. But by the end of the first season, much of the promise it had shown early on had faded as the show strayed a bit from its source material, which follows ex-con Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) as he sets off on a road trip with a man known as Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), but who is really the god Odin, to gather supporters for a war between the old gods and the new.
Although we will probably never know for certain (because no one will go on record to confirm the rumors to be true), it seems the decision to deviate from the page and expand upon the novel's story might have played a role in whatever initially sent the show down the rockiest of roads on its way toward a second season. (A blown budget also seems to be a running theme.) You see, American Gods' path to Season 2 wasn't just littered with gaping, craggy potholes, it was made nearly impassable by looming obstacles the size of boulders.
First, both Fuller and his co-showrunner, Michael Green, exited the series, seemingly against their will, between seasons. A change in showrunner doesn't necessarily spell doom, of course, but then their replacement, Jesse Alexander, was similarly pushed out during production on Season 2. According to a rather enlightening story published by The Hollywood Reporter, cast members were reportedly taking passes at scripts and the series eventually had to enlist Orlando Jones, who plays Mr. Nancy, as a writer so a member of the WGA would be credited and the production could avoid violating guild rules.
But the problems didn't end there; the series also lost formidable actress Gillian Anderson, who played new god Media. The role was reworked to be New Media, which, in the interest of fairness, was probably smart since this is 2019 and the novel was published in 2001. Meanwhile, Kristin Chenoweth, who portrayed Easter, has said she won't return to the drama without Fuller, with whom she's worked closely over the years. As book readers know, Easter is vital to Shadow's overall story, so Chenoweth's departure is another headache waiting to happen, provided the show even makes it that far, of course.
The THR story, which was published in September 2018, also detailed behind-the-scenes drama between Starz and Fremantle, the studio that produces the series. And if the sources in the article are to be believed, it's pretty shocking that American Gods wasn't completely sunk by the weight of it all. I honestly can't believe the show was able to navigate one of the craziest meltdowns in recent memory and return for a second season. I really thought American Gods would become yet another series that was renewed only to later be canceled, something that happens more often now as the TV landscape continues to change and grow and morph into its next form. And after having seen the first two episodes of the new season, I think maybe the show would have been better off if that had actually been the case.
Season 2, which premieres Sunday, March 10, picks up at the House on the Rock, a real-life tourist attraction that plays a major role in Gaiman's novel. It's cool that the series was able to film on location at the real House on the Rock because the scale and beauty of the carousel it houses and the weirdness of the space creates an atmosphere that likely would not have been achievable had it been merely reproduced on a soundstage somewhere. And for what it's worth, the series looks mostly the same as it did in Season 1. It has the same tone and style, but a show that looks cool visually is nothing if the narrative isn't there to propel (or even sustain) it, and so the show falls victim to the same issues that plagued Season 1. Although the second season appears to more closely adhere to the narrative of the novel, the story continues down the same frustrating, opaque path the show was on at the end of Season 1, only Shadow now knows a bit of what's going on and is no longer a totally blind puppy.
Perhaps the most egregious misstep the show makes, though, is its continued insistence on slow pacing. The story still moves at a snail's pace, stretching out Gaiman's layered material for as long as possible, as if the show has all the time in the world and isn't currently on air because someone at Fremantle sacrificed an intern to an ancient deity (OK, that probably didn't happen, but would you be surprised if you found out it did?). The series won't even reach Lakeside, considered to be the middle of Shadow's journey, by the end of the season. Instead, the many storylines will converge in Cairo, Illinois, something that probably isn't worth explaining for non-book readers right now except to say it's not Lakeside.
I don't really know if American Gods will live to see Season 3. There are aspects of the series that feel like they have the potential to be more than vaguely interesting; Mr. Nancy is a constant delight, thanks to Jones' electric performance; the burgeoning romance between Salim (Omid Abtahi) and the Jinn (Mousa Kraish) gives the story some emotional weight; and Laura Moon's (Emily Browning) expanded role in the narrative has led to a strange little buddy comedy involving her and Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber). Although this departure from the novel sometimes feels out of place given the seemingly serious subject at hand, their odd couple energy adds a welcome lightness to the overarching narrative. Of course, B- and C-plots can't sustain an entire show. We're supposed to care about Shadow and his place within the overall narrative of the gods, and as Laura's journey takes her further and farther away from Shadow, it takes us further from the show we're supposed to want to be watching. And for fans of the novel who had such high expectations at the outset and who've been waiting nearly two years for the next chapter in the story, it's rather upsetting.
Because it's upsetting when a show doesn't live up to its potential. And to be certain, American Gods had a lot of potential. It's unfortunate that behind-the-scenes issues appear to be dooming such a wonderful story about faith and belief. I suppose the good news here is that if you're a fan of Gaiman's work and/or larger-than-life narratives, there is still the chance that Amazon's upcoming adaptation of Good Omens, a novel that Gaiman wrote with the late Terry Pratchett, will be able to fill the void when it debuts this May. For now, though, you're probably better off catching up with whatever show you've got saved on your DVR.
American Gods premieres Sunday, March 10 at 8/7c on Starz.