When it was announced, the first season of Starz’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods instantly became one of my all-time most anticipated pieces of pop culture. As a teenager, I was overwhelmingly obsessed with the book, to the point where I forced my English teacher to read it, and it was the Gaiman novel that, to me, felt the most in need of the big or small-screen treatment. Imagine my delight when it was revealed that the show would be made by Bryan Fuller, the showrunner on two of my favorite TV shows ever, Pushing Daisies and Hannibal. He seemed like the perfect choice for this material, thanks to its blend of fantasy, road-trip drama, mythology, and psycho-sexual madness. The first season, which Fuller developed with Michael Green, was a sumptuous treat that fulfilled all my desires for an American Gods adaptation. Fuller and Green couldn’t have been a better match for this lofty but uncontrolled book, one whose plotless structure cried out for some discipline without losing touch of its unique mood and array of characters. Critics seemed to like it, Fuller’s devoted fan-base blended well with the Gaiman nerds, and the cast spoke effusively about the experience of working on American Gods.
And then things went very wrong.
It was announced that Fuller and Green would be stepping down from the show after one season. Any possibility of the split being amicable quickly dissipated after stories emerged that the pair were sacked, allegedly for going wildly over budget and because Gaiman wanted the series to be more in line with his novel. Jesse Alexander, a former staff writer for Hannibal, was announced as co-showrunner for the second season alongside Gaiman for season two. That lasted all of seven months before Alexander was removed, with The Hollywood Reporter describing him as having been effectively ‘fired but not fired.’ Their sources claimed that Fremantle, the show’s studio, ‘would rather exile Alexander than endure the negative attention that would come with dismissing a second showrunner in two seasons.’ Alexander had reportedly turned in multiple drafts of the season two finale, with Starz and Fremantle rejecting all of them until they got to the seventh draft. Shooting fell dramatically behind schedule, actors didn’t receive scripts because none were ready, and as scripts began being rewritten on-set, some actors started making passes at their own dialogue, which required Orlando Jones, who played Mr. Nancy, to be enlisted as a writer so the show would avoid WGA rules. Financial woes only increased as the show managed to go even more over budget in season two than it had under Fuller and Green.
With no showrunner, producing director Chris Byrne and line producer Lisa Kussner were left in charge, and after the show was renewed for a third season, American Gods was officially onto its third showrunner, Charles H. Eglee. Meanwhile, actors had been dropping out of the show left and right. After Fuller and Green left, Gillian Anderson and Kristin Chenoweth announced that they wouldn’t return. This month, Orlando Jones stated that he had been fired from the show after Eglee decided that Mr. Nancy sent ‘the wrong message for black America.’ In response, a spokesperson for the series stated that Jones’ contract was not renewed because his character Mr. Nancy is not included in the book material in which the season 3 episodes are based on. Mousa Kraish, who played fan-favorite Jinn, also took to Twitter this week to announced that he was not asked to return to season three. The optics of the show sacking not only two of the show’s most beloved characters but two men of color did not escape anyone, especially the fandom who have been through some tough sh*t this past couple of years.
So, what the f**k happened to American Gods?
First, we need to understand what made the first season so good and how the second season simply never managed to live up to it, even without the behind-the-scenes drama that undoubtedly impacted the final product. American Gods was always going to be a wildly ambitious undertaking as a television series. The book is chock full of cultural and historical scope but lacks the plot and structure to hold it all together. In literary form, readers have more patience for Shadow Moon and Mr. Wednesday’s road trip across the country and the side-stories of the various gods whose powers have weakened over the centuries, but adapting that from the page without major changes would risk the entire series feeling slapdash or too languid to hold audiences’ attention, especially in the age of Peak TV. Season one isn’t exactly plotless but it does follow a lot of that languid structure from the book while maintaining the necessary intrigue to keep viewers’ hooked. Crucially, enough plot changes are made to ensure the show would have the means to continue on multi-season arcs that stay faithful to the novel’s intent, most notably the development with Chenoweth’s goddess of Easter.
Bryan Fuller has a highly distinctive approach to his shows. He loves death and the majestic aesthetic it evokes, but he also loves to plunder the realms of the unreal for those painfully human moments, even when every character talks, as Matt Zoller Seitz once described the dialogue of Hannibal, like stoned vampires. His blending of high and low — the operatic with the soapy, the sensual with the near-pornographic — has won him a dedicated fandom for a reason. Hannibal took well-worn source material that had become the stuff of parody in wider pop culture and reinvigorated it in the way the books deserved while remaining inimitably Fuller-esque. Mixing hallucinogenic visuals in stunningly grotesque ways provided some of the series’ most memorable moments, from the unique murder scenes to the sex scenes that seriously pushed network standards out of their comfort zones. It was always amazing what Fuller got away with on network television, where he has by and large worked, and that made his creativity all the more appealing for audiences fine-tuned to his frequency. American Gods let him go off the leash thanks to the freedom of Starz and the source material practically begged for it. Who else but Fuller could make Bilquis’s all-consuming sex scenes so disturbingly beautiful? Hell, Fuller’s always been good at sex and American Gods just let him do that without fear of stern letters from concerned mothers. The first night spent with Jinn and Salim is one of the most astounding and unabashedly queer sex scenes committed to TV, the sort of otherworldly sensuality that you seldom see on the small screen.
Few showrunners are as impeccable at casting as Fuller. Who would have thought that the Danish guy from that one Bond movie would be such a perfect Hannibal Lecter, or that the one British dude who was on Strictly Come Dancing would embody the enigmatic (and poorly developed in the book) Shadow Moon? American Gods assembled a veritable murderer’s row of talent, both well-known and new, for its vast and varied ensemble. For a season with so many characters, many of whom are one-offs in the book, American Gods truly made the most of its cast, from Gillian Anderson as Bowie and Lucille Ball to the vaping brat Technical Boy (a welcome update from the book’s cliched depiction of him as a spotty fat nerd that also understood how the new age of deified technology takes the form of Silicon Valley bros.) In perhaps the stand-out moment of the season, Orlando Jones absolutely kills as Mr. Nancy, inciting a rebellion on a slave ship by preaching of the horrors of racism and white supremacy that await generations of black men and women. It’s a rousing and deeply strange moment that best exemplifies the power of the source material: the power of gods is what you believe it to be and that lingers long after their time has passed.
For this piece, I decided to check out the first couple of episodes of season two, having chosen to sit out the show once Fuller and Green left. Unsurprisingly, it just wasn’t as good. While I appreciated that the most recent season hired far more female directors, there was something undeniably lifeless about the show now. It felt like tracing paper had been haphazardly applied over the first season, attempting to replicate its basic elements but with none of the depth or daring of its predecessor (not to mention an undeniable cheapness to the previously lush aesthetic). A show that exploded with such force was suddenly painfully derivative, even with actors giving it their all in scripts that felt noticeably weaker compared to season one. Gaiman allegedly wanted the show to remain more faithful to his book, but you don’t really see that in season two beyond bursts of real narrative incoherence. All the Fuller and Green stuff has been clamped down, further exposing the weakness of the source material. Most embarrassingly, the show got boring.
Audiences clearly noticed the changes and weren’t wild about it. The show went from averaging about 700 - 750,000 viewers an episode to around 300,000 viewers in season two. A downturn in positive reviews probably didn’t help but it’s also hard to overlook how much the fandom was turned off by the behind-the-scenes changes. Fuller famously commands a small but highly dedicated fan-base, one that feels ahead of its time. He used to struggle with his series in the mid-2000s when shows needed to have a higher share of audience numbers, but in the age of Too Much TV, it matters more than ever to have that kind of dedication from your viewers, even if their numbers are comparatively small compared to, say, Game of Thrones. Fuller’s fans came to American Gods for him because they wanted more of what he had to offer as a storyteller. Gaiman was simply a fun bonus. With Fuller and Green gone, why would those fans stick around? Clearly they didn’t, and Starz and Fremantle greatly overplayed their hand.
American Gods, to me, now feels like a cautionary tale combined with an industry tragic comedy. What could have been a wholly unique addition to Starz’s line-up that proudly carved its own path forwards now feels like the work of a student who missed all his classes and is trying to catch up on his homework by peeking at everyone else’s answers. It’s never a good sign when a series of which potential looks like it’s now simply spinning the wheels to pass the time. One can’t help but wonder what Starz and Fremantle even wanted from this series. Whatever the case, if the glumness of season two is what they desired, they can’t be surprised when audiences said no.
Header Image Source: Starz // Fremantle