The behind-the-scenes saga of “American Gods” has been almost more interesting than the show itself. After years of attempts to adapt Neil Gaiman’s beloved novel, it seemed to have a perfect fit in the visionary Bryan Fuller (“Hannibal”), the co-showrunner of season one with Michael Green. While the first season got strong reviews and an early renewal by Starz, there were rumors that Gaiman didn’t like Fuller & Green’s approach and that arguments between the creators and producers over budgets had turned acrimonious. Whatever the reason, Fuller and Green jumped ship during pre-production on season two (with four scripts written that were then tossed out, too), and stars Gillian Anderson and Kristin Chenoweth joined them. While fans waited for that second season, Jesse Alexander (“Star Trek: Discovery”) took over, but then everything derailed again with his removal by Starz, stories about being behind schedule, and no script for the season two finale. Believe it or not, it got worse. There was a report that the season was $30 million over budget, Ian McShane didn’t like the new scripts and was improvising, and Orlando Jones was pissed.
Unsurprisingly, season two was kind of a mess on-screen too, clearly the product of a show with a tumultuous production process, and a program looking for a new tone and direction while also staying wedded to the source and what had been done in season one. It lacked the confidence and vision of season one—so much so that one kind of presumed it would be the last. And yet Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) and Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) will be back on Sunday, January 10th for a 10-episode season, creatively managed this time by Charles Eglee (“Murder One”), and there are already reportedly plans for a fourth year. It really is hard to kill a God. The question is, could this TV deity find its power again? The jury is still out.
Season three of “American Gods” picks up close to where season two left off, with Mr. Wednesday continuing to try to build a team of Old Gods for the upcoming war against the New Gods, led by Mr. World (Crispin Glover). At the end of season two, Shadow Moon was basically given his freedom, turned into someone named Mike Ainsel, and that’s where the show catches up to him in the season three premiere. Working a normal job, living a normal life, he wants to leave all of the drama of the first two seasons behind him, but Wednesday needs him, and it’s got something to do with a small town named Lakeside, Wisconsin. And so that’s where Shadow ends up, hanging with the locals, giving the show some unique dark, folksy humor that feels almost like “Fargo” (Julia Sweeney nails the Wisconsin accent so well that Noah Hawley should give her a call), and even injecting an engaging mystery subplot about a missing girl into the first few episodes.
Meanwhile—and there’s always a lot of “meanwhile” in “American Gods”—Wednesday continues his mysterious plans to defeat the New Gods. Much like in most of season two, everyone feels a little scattered in the first part of this season (four episodes were screened for press). Despite his death at the end of season two, the arc of Laura Moon (Emily Browning) remains tied to that of Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) as she tries to bring him back to life. Browning and Schreiber were the best part of season two, and she has a great episode this season in which Laura has to reassess her entire life. The Goddess of Love Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) gets into trouble when she does that very memorable sacrifice thing she did in season one yet again. Simultaneously, Salim (Omid Abtahi) suffers the heartbreak of being separated from Jinn (Mousa Kraish). Crispin Glover gets only one early episode, and, truly sadly, Orlando Jones is no longer on the show. The show really feels the loss of his energy and that of Schreiber.
“American Gods” still too often lacks that passion and vision that it had in season one, vacillating between material that sounds relatively deep about the role of Gods over the centuries and stuff that sounds like drunken gibberish from a philosophy undergrad who thinks he knows more about the material than he really does. It flies so wildly from wisdom to nonsense that it can be breathtaking. Increasingly, it’s actually at its best this season when it’s most relaxed and relatable, less so when it’s digging into Gaiman’s larger vision. The material in Wisconsin is tight and clever in a way that makes one wish Whittle would do a legit mystery/noir after this show ends. McShane is always entertaining, able to elevate any writing, and Browning continues to impress.
“American Gods” this season feels more confident overall and more entertaining on a scene-by-scene basis, but it still slips through one’s fingers if they try to see the complete picture of what this show is trying to be. It seems too content to meander from episode to episode, allowing for the aforementioned philosophical mumbo jumbo when it needs to be building momentum. It’s a show with many people who talk about the importance of what they’re doing and what they need but one that often fails to convey its stakes or urgency in any way.
And yet, every episode this season has something that gives a little bit of hope to those who have stuck with “American Gods.” While everyone misses people like Anderson and Jones, impressive guest stars still pop up, including the wonderful Peter Stormare’s return in the second episode and the perfect casting of Blythe Danner in the third episode as Demeter. And everyone in Wisconsin is effective. Every time it’s tempting to write off this show completely, something will click that reveals its potential. Will it finally put all the pieces together in the back half of the third season or maybe even the fourth? God only knows. [C+]