American Gods was already a little messy, let’s be clear about that up front. The first season of the Starz series, based on the book by Neil Gaiman, featured a twisting collection of characters with twisting motivations and various powers. So much happened. So much. I watched the whole first season and enjoyed it quite a bit but heaven help me if you had asked me what happened week-to-week. I would have stammered and panicked and told you how much I liked hearing Ian McShane talk. True, sure, but not entirely helpful.
The thing it had going for it was style. It was a beautiful show to look at, all bright colors and beautiful people and violent action. It was inventive and charming. My favorite moment came during an intense fight in a pounding storm. Laura Moon (Emily Browning), a slight undead woman who developed supernatural powers as her body parts fell off and were put back together, was doing battle with a swarm of goons. As one approached her, she reared back and kicked him square in the jimmies with enough force that his entire spine and skull launched out through the top of his head. I promise I am not making this up. Here, look. Feel free to save it and use it on your various social media platforms with a caption like “Monday mornings.” My gift to you.
And so, it is with great sadness that I inform you that the long-delayed second season is here and it is… not great. The messiness is still there, but now it’s not offset with the same amount of style and charm. It’s a shame. There are a bunch of explanations for this, which we’ll get to in a minute, but first, a quick primer.
Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) is a former convict who was hired as a bodyguard by a man named Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), who quickly revealed himself to be a slick-talking version of the Norse god Odin. Mr. Wednesday runs around with Shadow, introducing him to other gods and running afoul of a few more, as he explains that the Old Gods and the New Gods are heading toward war. The first season bobbed and weaved through this story, with everyone from Crispin Glover to Gillian Anderson to Orlando Jones to Kristin Chenoweth popping up as deities. Dane Cook played Shadow Moon’s sleazy buddy. Peter Stormare was in there, too, which is important because Peter Stormare is awesome. And again, McShane as a flim-flamming ancient god. No complaints so far.
So, what went wrong in season two? A lot. It’s not even worth explaining what happened to the on-screen result because most of the issues stem from behind-the-scenes drama that rivaled anything in the scripts. The showrunners of the first season, Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, were either pushed out or fired, depending on who’s telling the story, for either going way over budget or deviating too far from Gaiman’s story, or both, again, depending who is taking. Gillian Anderson and Kristin Chenoweth left the show. A new showrunner, Jesse Alexander, was brought in to tighten things up. It did not go well, as you can tell from the following passages from a Hollywood Reporter story that is comprehensive and damning and a little delicious.
The word “fired” was not used internally, and a representative for Alexander said that characterization was not accurate. But Alexander, an executive producer, is no longer working on the hyper-stylized drama as a writer or showrunner, and has been asked not to sit in on editing, be involved on set or participate in any other areas of production or postproduction.
Insiders stress that [the production company] opted to go with Alexander because the studio believed they could have a level of control over him that they couldn’t with Fuller and Green. Alexander is said to have also appealed to Gaiman because the scripts he oversaw would stick largely to the novel. The way that Fuller and Green built out and developed the world of American Gods in the first season was a source of irritation for Gaiman, insiders say.
After some actors, including star Ian McShane (Mr. Wednesday), began taking passes at improving dialogue, the production was forced to enlist co-star Orlando Jones (Mr. Nancy) as a writer on the series so a member of the WGA would be credited with writing instead of having actors violating guild rules. Others say some writers were coming to set with hand-written notebook pages — rewrites on scripts Alexander oversaw — amid “screaming matches” between the showrunner and McShane.
So the showrunner they brought in to replace the showrunners they pushed out was basically banned from the set and working on the show in any substantial way (not fired), and the cast was making up dialogue on the fly when they weren’t butting heads with the creative team, and, oh yeah, it all still went over-budget because they had to go back and re-do so much of the stuff that wasn’t working. If you were wondering how you get a two-year break between seasons of a show, and a diluted product, this is all a good start.
And it’s a bummer, really. I don’t know exactly who is to blame for it all, either. Maybe everyone, a little bit. The bottom line is that the show that was once messy and fun and fascinating is now kind of just a mess. It says a lot about a show if even Ian McShane comes off a little boring on-screen, you know? That might be the most damning thing I can say, actually.
At least we’ll always have that GIF, though. Has to count for something.
‘American Gods’ returns to Starz on Sunday, March 10th