One of the miracles of any good television show is that it even works at all. First consider the countless people working across departments and disciplines needed to make a single episode happen; and then consider that they all have to do it anywhere between eight and 20-ish times a year, and that the result has to make sense to millions of people who cannot wait to be unimpressed. There are a lot of places to mess up! And yet we hear about so few mistakes. Which is why it’s a pretty big story when something as large as American Gods goes awry.
The Starz drama was a special kind of disaster: it premiered to considerable acclaim only to fall to pieces in between its first and second seasons, losing its high-profile showrunners and several cast members. Between the second season finale and the premiere of the latest season, the show’s new management fired Orlando Jones, whose fiery portrayal of the trickster god Anansi was beloved and one of the show’s brightest stars. (Allegations surrounding Jones’ dismissal are troubling.) This makes the third season more surprising: after all that chaos, it’s turned out totally fine.
Season 3 also doesn’t resemble what drew many to American Gods in the first place. The radical experimentation is gone. There are no fiery monologues, mind-bending sex scenes, or powerful vignettes that evoke the immigrant experience and humanity’s relationship with faith. American Gods is no longer interested in that sort of thing. Instead, it’s concerned with rebuilding itself and doing the fascinating work of making a season that’s equal parts a total do-over and a straightforward continuation of the story that started in episode one.
And so we are reintroduced to Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), a man living under an alias after a falling out with his employer, Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane). Quickly, we’re reminded why: Mr. Wednesday is not just some impossible boss. He’s Odin, the Norse All-Father — and also Shadow’s IRL dad. Until recently, Shadow was driving Wednesday across America to recruit the country’s forgotten gods, soliciting their aid in a coming war between them and the nation’s new ones. (I should probably note here that in the world of American Gods, worship is what makes them godlike, so the forgotten old gods are mostly normal people with a few mythic tricks.) These new gods represent our modern obsessions: new media, technology, and so on. But Shadow is done with that. He makes a home for himself in Lakeside, Wisconsin, an idyllic small town where gods new and old will hopefully leave him the hell alone.
Naturally, they do not, because Shadow has a part to play. So does his dead wife Laura (Emily Browning), who has been wandering Earth as an undead revenant with the leprechaun Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber, sadly missing this season outside of some flashbacks), along with an eclectic cast of gods and those who know them.
All of this is rather perfunctory. The third season of American Gods is an attempt to restore lost momentum from the second season, taking advantage of a grace note in the novel it’s slowly adapting — its protagonist’s sojourn in a small town — to rebuild itself. The show can’t introduce many new pieces because it’s too busy trying to account for the old ones, and its tools are limited because it has committed to a relatively faithful adaptation of the novel on which it is based. Its destination is already set, which means that in the meantime, the show has to get a little creative in how it gets there.
The result is something that’s underwhelming to watch but fascinating to think about. In our modern, tightly managed, IP-driven entertainment environment, it’s rare to see an ongoing production implode in such a catastrophic manner and then somehow manage to right itself. In this, it’s a pretty good reminder that television is a uniquely malleable and chaotic medium. (This despite the recent popularity of the prestige format, which often has shorter runs and planned endings that make it easy to forget that having a strict narrative plan is often a recipe for disaster in TV.)
Actors depart, new showrunners are brought in, and the collaborative nature of the medium makes for stories that veer far away from what was originally intended. Consider Breaking Bad, which initially planned to kill fan-favorite character Jesse Pinkman, and began its acclaimed final season with a shot that the writers did not know how they would justify.
American Gods’ third season effort to right itself has undoubtedly left us with a lesser show — call it the underwhelming cable adaptation as opposed to the exciting premium project it started as. But its chaotic journey is also a worthwhile reminder: despite all the promise of peak TV’s bold new frontier where just about any kind of show can be made, this is still the old gods’ domain.