When the late, great critic Gene Siskel hated a movie, he’d say he wished the filmmakers had asked themselves, “Is my film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch together?” This question applies neatly to television as well. I’ve often sat through hilarious cast press conferences for sitcoms that had failed to make me so much as smile, and wondered how that energy couldn’t be properly harnessed when the cameras rolled.
A show as visually flashy and bug-nuts crazy as Starz’s American Gods (Sundays at 8 p.m.) should never fail Siskel’s test. Somehow, though, it has. The second season (I’ve seen the first three episodes) is utter tedium. But I’d be riveted to witness a lunch where Ian McShane, Orlando Jones, Emily Browning and Crispin Glover talked about the mess the series has become since Season One.
Since the show’s been away for nearly two years — and has been through a lot of backstage turmoil over that time — let me refresh your memory. American Gods is based on Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel where ancient deities like Norse ruler Odin (a.k.a. McShane’s Mr. Wednesday) and African trickster Anansi (a.k.a. Jones’ Mr. Nancy) wander the earth, surviving on power derived from just a scant few remaining believers and fending off challenges from modern gods that rule over things like technology (Bruce Langley as Technical Boy) and pop culture (Gillian Anderson as Media in the first season, Kahyun Kim now). Caught in the middle of this war between old gods and new are ex-con Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) and his recently deceased wife Laura (Emily Browning), who comes back to life, kind of, in a decaying body that’s now superstrong. Season One was run by Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (Logan), two of the most imaginative writers working in television at the moment. They packed it with indelible imagery, from Media channeling David Bowie circa Ziggy Stardust to Laura literally exploding a bad guy with a forceful kick to the groin. Blood splatter has rarely looked as dramatic, or pretty, as it did on a show where mortals and gods tended to die in the most graphic fashion possible.
Fuller and Green were let go after the first season wrapped production. According to this exhaustive Hollywood Reporter story (which is also more interesting to read than the new episodes are to watch), production company Freemantle Media had two major concerns with the duo. First, the episodes cost a fortune, even for premium cable in the Peak TV era, and Fuller and Green apparently wanted even more money for the new season. Second, Gaiman didn’t appreciate the show’s deviations from his book, and wanted Fuller and Green replaced with someone who would do a more faithful, straightforward adaptation.
Money is money, but most of what was exciting about American Gods in that uneven first season came from Fuller and Green, or from actors like Anderson and Kristin Chenoweth who left in solidarity with their ousted bosses. In particular, there were two first-season episodes that borrowed almost nothing from the book: one about the life of Laura Moon, the other the story of an Irish immigrant (also played by Emily Browning) who crossed paths with leprechaun Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber). These were far and away the season’s two best hours, where everything else was a slow and deliberately confusing meandering across America as Wednesday recruited Shadow Moon to help him assemble an army of old gods. It didn’t help that Whittle was so underwhelming as Shadow, but even the gloriously charismatic McShane seemed wasted as a character who played things close to the vest for the purpose of elongating the story.
Jesse Alexander was hired to replace Fuller and Green, and to stick to the original text as much as possible. It didn’t go well, per the THR report, to the point where McShane and the other actors began improvising their own dialogue and Jones (who’s also a member of the Writers Guild) had to be given a writing credit to avoid violating guild rules. (Rewrites and reshoots sent the budget skyrocketing, ironically.) Eventually, Alexander was sent home. And as of last month, a replacement showrunner still hadn’t been found, complicating any attempt to order a third season.
So, yes, McShane and company would have much to talk about if someone were to film them having lunch and being candid about the circumstances behind the making of the new season. And it would have to be more exciting than the actual episodes, which offer all of Season One’s rambling and very little of its inventiveness.
It continues to feel as if the show, like its characters, is traveling in circles, never quite clear on its destination or means of getting there. Though the second episode gives him a backstory, Shadow in the show’s present remains a frustrating blank, there to look perpetually slack-jawed with awe and confusion like he’s Harry Potter getting his first peek at the Hogwarts dining hall. The show at least seems to recognize that he’s a drag, separating him from the old gods for a couple of episodes so Wednesday can have some livelier traveling companions like Laura or Mr. Nancy. Neither new pairing lasts long, unfortunately, and Whittle is still onscreen far more often than his performance warrants, regardless of Shadow’s prominence in the book.
For a series whose characters persist on ancestral memory, American Gods seems built not to stick in the minds of people watching. Two years is an eternity to remember details in this TV landscape, but even the new episodes seemed to slide out of my brain after I watched them, or sometimes while I was in the middle of them. And the imagery feels much less inspired than in Season One, making the long and opaque stretches of plot even tougher to sit through.
Gaiman’s a hell of a writer. Even with Anderson and Chenoweth gone, this is still a striking and deep ensemble. But the whole thing is hollow and dull. Fuller and Green’s vision of American Gods was far from perfect throughout, but it could be stunning in isolated moments or episodes, where the new season offers very little to believe in.