Find out what went wrong…
Despite what Neil Gaiman says, American Gods is dead. Starz cancelled it shortly after Season 3 ended, but truthfully it was dead the minute Bryan Fuller and half the main cast and crew exited the show at the end of Season 1. Despite that, like the show’s zombie wife Laura Moon, it just kept moving forward, more out of habit than any kind of self-motivation. Every episode since has had me looking around thinking, ‘Why am I still here? What do I get out of this?’ Answers to those questions continued to dwindle, until by the end of Season 3 I could count them on one hand. Meanwhile, reasons why the show became distinctly worse became so plentiful that it’s hard to tell which arrow from the volley was the one that finally killed the beast. But before we go into those, let’s talk about why the show was so highly praised in the first place:
Season 1: A Tough Act To Follow
Season 1 of American Gods was great. I’m not gonna go into every single aspect of the show that was awesome, I insist that you either take my word for it or watch it if you haven’t already. I think you can boil the show’s success down to three main aspects: a unique visual style, a focus on people of colour in America, and cool characters played by cool actors saying cool lines (list them on screen as ‘visuals, diversity, and cool’).
If you loved Hannibal, watching American Gods was like being embraced in a warm, beautiful, slightly unsettling hug. It was dream-like and evocative, appropriate for a show about seeing a magical world just underneath the ordinary.
The sheer fact of what’s happening on screen is fantastic enough, but it’s elevated by a fairly consistent formula – drab, neutral colours for the ordinary world which are suddenly punctuated by either sharp colours or instantly memorable visual effects when someone godly decides to express themselves.
Probably the best change made in the adaptation from book to show, was the increased focus on people of colour. This isn’t to say that the book was all white people, it featured gods brought by immigrants and slaves from all parts of the world, and their descendants. But people of colour were mainly featured in the ‘Coming to America’ vignettes, with the central bunch consisting mostly of Caucasians.
In the show, Shadow is changed to be mixed-race, which has some pretty heavy ramifications on the way people treat him, bit characters like Salim and Bilquis who both get one and two chapters apiece, are given storylines spanning the whole show. Anansi is changed from an old, laughing man into an angry, cynical revolutionary, and also the best character in the show. Times changed since the book was written, and the writers wisely accounted for that.
And then there’s the cool. Nuff said really.
Season 2: Where It Started Going Wrong
The behind-the-scenes drama of American Gods is often more interesting than the show itself. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it completely fell apart. Here is a list of all the departures that occurred between the end of Season 1 and 2:
- Showrunners and writers Bryan Fuller and Michael Green left the show after Season 1, citing a lack of time and money to adapt the show (the first season went millions over budget).
- Gillian Anderson (Media) and Kristin Chenoweth (Easter) leave the show after Season 1, citing scheduling conflicts that were apparently anticipated.
- Due to budgetary concerns, Season 2 is shortened from 10 episodes to 8, and the 6 episodes Fuller and Green had already written are thrown out.
- Jesse Alexander is brought on as showrunner for Season 2, but his scripts are rejected for not being weird enough, and he’s eventually sorta-fired, leaving Season 2 to be completed without a showrunner.
- Actor – and writer for Season 2 – Orlando Jones (Anansi) is fired ostensibly due to his character not appearing in the part of the book being adapted, unlike Demeter, Bilquis, Laura, Tyr, Technical Boy, Ibis, Mr/Ms World, Johan, Oshun, Liam, Czernabog and Whiskey Jack, who all definitely appear in Lakeside in the book.
The result of all this exodus was a chaotic Season 2, in which lines were often written on the day or improvised. The show even went on hiatus for weeks since the script for the finale hadn’t even been written.
And it’s so obvious to see as a viewer. Season 2 unpleasantly tries to imitate Season 1’s bizarre style without any of its substance or originality, but also manages to be fairly ordinary at the end of the day. Where Season 1 had the overarching focus on Wednesday’s bid to recruit Old Gods for a war with the New Gods, Season 2 is mostly treading water and manoeuvring. Stopping to breathe allows the show to focus on some nice micro-stories, such as the CEO’s, or the debate at Cairo’s funeral parlour, or Baron Samedi’s whole deal.
But that’s all overshadowed by the scrambling to pick up the pieces of the show. Take Media’s departure for instance – her rebirth as New Media, her attempted merger with Argus, and the general attempt to modernise her character accounts for nothing when she uses traditional media to turn the world against the Old Gods. The main plot really only kicks into gear in the last episode, and it’s confusing as all hell. Seriously, the finale of Season 2 makes no sense, and half of what happens is abandoned at the start of Season 3. And on that note:
Season 3: Was It Any Good?
Despite the many criticisms I’m about to level at it, Season 3 was an overall improvement on the previous season. Rather than attempting to pay lip service to the characters that won us over in Season 1, new settings and new dynamics are introduced and developed fairly effectively. In particular, Odin and Demeter’s storyline very nearly saved the show, brilliantly paced across multiple episodes and played to perfection by Ian McShane and Blythe Danner. Other moments of true beauty stood out as a glimpse of what the show once was: Shadow and Marguerite in the tub; the ‘You Want It Darker’ montage; Salim’s trippy party.
On the other hand, there are so many gripes I had that it’s a struggle to keep it brief. I truly hate that they went with the whole ‘one app to connect all your stuff’ angle as Mr. World’s plan. If Terminator Genysis did something you’re doing, stop whatever it is you’re doing. On the subject of technology, I don’t understand why they gave Technical Boy a protagonists’ role. Despite going through a brief evolution last season, his character didn’t end up changing much at all, and there’s little to find likeable or sympathetic in him. He’s still the same internet troll he was before, and nothing has changed in the story to make us think of technology as a good thing.
Both Bilquis and Laura had what amounts to the first half of a character arc, with Laura going on a journey of self-discovery but ultimately playing all the same beats (travelling with Salim and a leprechaun yet again) and failing to find a good reason to go on by the end. It was a genuinely brilliant move having Bilquis move beyond her role as an exotic sex goddess (in fact Bilquis has been one of the few characters to remain continuously compelling throughout the whole show) but her role as Shadow’s mentor isn’t entirely worthy of her stature.
Overall, nothing in Season 3 remained to justify its continued existence, and the recurring trend of wiping out the previous season’s character development (and wiping out characters outright) makes becoming invested in the show difficult to say the least.
For me, the moment that killed the show was when it stopped telling the story of black people in America. Gaiman’s original book, while terrifically written and engrossing from start to finish, has the handicap of being written by an English white man. His perspective reads like a curious tourist, dipping his toe into cultures foreign to him and lamenting their disappearance from a comfortable armchair. The stories don’t make me feel the pain of persecution, or make my blood boil at injustice, or urge me to defend the victimised. Meanwhile, I’d challenge anyone to watch Anansi’s introductory speech on the slave ship and not want to join a BLM march the next day. Shifting to the perspective of non-white characters like Salim, Bilquis, Anansi and Shadow provided the show with heaps of emotional weight and, more importantly I think, something to say that actually mattered.
I find it deeply insulting that they shifted focus away from the persecuted black characters, and more on how uncomfortable the topic of racism made the white characters. Mulligan’s awkward apology for arresting Shadow is given screen time, rather than Shadow’s discomfort at being the only person of colour in a small town in Wisconsin. That scene in particular is acted terrifically by both men, but only serves to highlight who was in the sympathetic light. And as quickly as the scene starts it’s over, as if the showrunners felt as awkward broaching the subject as Mulligan was. Similarly, they introduced and then quickly sidestepped the fact that Wednesday is partly responsible for the genocide of the Native Americans, and what the hell was with that last scene of Shadow and the cotton-picking slaves staring at each other? The only way I can read that scene is that it’s Shadow realising the tremendous history of suffering that led to him being able to make a choice for himself that day, but – and let me enunciate this clearly – he’s a black man in America, he knows full well how he got there. It’s a moment that might have played really well if it were an ignorant white character forced to confront the horrors of slavery, but it wasn’t. If you ask me, the Season 3 team were naively struggling through ideas that the first episode of the entire show treated as a given.
Season 4: Does It Deserve One?
I hate an unfinished story. Shows like Firefly and Hannibal are testament to what happens when you don’t cast your net as wide as you can to catch as many viewers as possible. But I have no doubt that American Gods could have continued in its weird little way despite its niche angle. What killed the show was the departure of the creative minds that made it what it was, and the failed attempt of those that followed to copy its style. If there’s one thing I hate more than an unfinished story, it’s a story that finishes poorly. I’d rather wipe Seasons 7 and 8 of Game of Thrones from my memory than have them sour the whole show by association, and I’d rather we stopped trying to restore American Gods to its former glory, and simply let it die. There was nothing on television quite like the first season of American Gods. Unfortunately, I don’t believe we’ll ever capture that magic again.