Neil Gaiman on Why Social Media Outrage Will ‘Eat Us’ Alive
The celebrated novelist opens up to Melissa Leon about the new season of Starz’s “American Gods,” the departure of Orlando Jones, and how social media is ruining us all.
Neil Gaiman is less than perfectly satisfied with the first two seasons of American Gods, the Starz adaptation of his beloved 2001 road-trip novel. He praises the hyper-stylized visual language original showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green created in its debut season (the only one Fuller and Green helmed before departing the series). And he is effusive about the show’s “fabulous” cast, led by Ian McShane as Norse god-in-disguise Mr. Wednesday and Ricky Whittle as Shadow, the widower and ex-convict Wednesday hires as a bodyguard on his journey across America to rally the Old Gods against the New.
But the celebrated fantasy author is as frank about where he feels the rest of the show stumbled as he is about where it succeeded.
That first season “had a story that when it worked, it was jaw-dropping,” Gaiman tells The Daily Beast. “And when it didn’t work, it felt like The Twilight Zone or something, where you go off and have a new adventure each week in a different town or whatever. It wasn’t feeling like a whole.” He began to feel uncertain about how far the series wandered from its source material, which centered Shadow’s point of view. The series, by contrast, focused on the warring deities themselves and on Shadow’s not-quite-dead wife, Laura Moon (played with foul-mouthed relish by Emily Browning).
Season two made it to the screen two long years later, after weathering a more difficult set of problems. Fuller and Green left the show (reportedly over creative differences and disputes with Starz and Fremantle, the network’s production partner, about the show’s ballooning budget). In their absence, former Hannibal and Star Trek: Discovery writer Jesse Alexander took the reins. “He’d worked in television for a long time but this was actually the first show that he showran,” Gaiman says. “His inexperience was something that we had to deal with. And it kind of showed.”
Several actors called it quits when Fuller and Green did, including Gillian Anderson, who had played a powerful New God named Media and performed dazzling impersonations of David Bowie, Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball, and Judy Garland. Kristin Chenoweth left, too; she had played the pagan goddess Easter and had a key role in the cliffhanger at the end of season one. Without her, the story American Gods had cued up for season two was all but unusable.
The series found itself in a tight corner when Alexander took over. “At that point, they were trying to solve story problems and budget problems and they were not really… It didn’t really feel like it hung together,” Gaiman explains. The show’s writers stuck less to the episodic, god-of-the-week structure that had bothered Gaiman in season one. “But it also didn’t really feel like it came into focus,” the author says. Starz and Fremont seemed to think so, too. Alexander ended up sidelined from production before the season two finale script had been finalized, let alone shot. The series stalled in a temporary hiatus in 2018.
Gaiman typically offers notes on scripts, reviews some footage, and works with actors to create onscreen versions of his characters, among other production duties for American Gods. He is specific about what he feels season two lacked: “It had some fabulous high points. I love the lives of Mad Sweeney episode [“Treasure of the Sun”], it was glorious. But it was also one of these things where I kept saying the same thing with every script and every rough cut that would come through. I would say, guys, Shadow is our protagonist. Could we have him front and center? Ricky’s a really good actor,” he laughs. “Could we have a bit more Shadow in there?”
When American Gods found itself showrunner-less for the second time in two seasons, the author was by then running a show of his own—the Amazon adaptation of Good Omens, the 1990 novel about angels, demons, and the apocalypse he wrote with the late Terry Pratchett. The experience, he’s noted, left him “significantly less easy to bullshit.” (“I definitely look at things I put up with from previous showrunners where they’d be like, ‘This is the way we do this’ and I’d be like, ‘Well, OK…’ Now I’m like, ‘Why the fuck would you do it like that?’” he told io9 in 2019.)
Good Omens premiered to warm reviews, leaving Gaiman to approach season three of American Gods more decisively than he had before. He helped choose a new showrunner, Charles “Chic” Eglee, expressly for his long years of experience running TV sets. (Eglee’s credits stretch back to St. Elsewhere and Moonlighting; newer shows like Hemlock Grove and The Walking Dead.) “I felt what we needed was a steady hand on the rudder,” Gaiman says. And he was firm on guiding the story back toward its source material, “because people really like the book, and we understand the book, and we know what we’re doing with the book.”
Indeed, season three is a faithful adaptation of the chapters in which Shadow flees the gods and his destiny and spends the long winter months in a quaint Wisconsin town called Lakeside. Finally, the series is what Gaiman pictured it could be. “One of the things I love about season three,” Gaiman says, is that “Shadow comes to the front. We really feel like all of Ricky’s charm and power as an actor are on display. And it doesn’t feel episodic. You watch episode one and then episode two and then episode three and we are in a 10-episode storyline. And it all makes sense. We know where we are and the writing is sharp and smart and the actors feel like they’re being well-served by the writing.”
He recalls sitting down to watch rough-cut footage from the season’s first few episodes—“without special effects, without the music, without anything—and feeling a “wonderful” dawn of realization. “Just relaxing,” he laughs. “Breathing a huge sigh of relief and going, OK, this is great. This is going to work.”
Gaiman wrote American Gods after moving to rural Wisconsin at 32 and finding himself gobsmacked by the parts of America rarely described in the TV, movies, and books he’d consumed all his life. He’d thought he’d known America. “And then I moved there,” he says. “And I realized that I knew nothing.”
“It was a place where I would say things to people like, ‘So, what is that car doing out on the ice?’ And they would say, ‘Ah, that’s the clunker. We drive it out onto the ice and then we wait for it to fall in.’ I said, ‘Why do you do that?’ And they’d say, ‘Oh, it’s for charity. We take bets on when it’s gonna go in.’ And I’d say, ‘Don’t you think maybe that’s a bit weird?’” He mimics the matter-of-fact earnestness of the replies he’d get: “‘Nope, no. We’ve been doing that for years and years.’” Gaiman wrote the clunker into the Lakeside chapters; Shadow’s reaction to the curiosity reflects his own.
He imagined and built the fictional Lakeside “by stealing all of the things that I loved from every little Wisconsin town” he delighted in during the two decades he called the Badger State home. The unique weirdness and wonder of the Midwest defines the novel and, to a greater extent this season, the show. But not everyone gets it. “I remember doing my first radio interview about American Gods. And the interviewer said, ‘So what made you want to write a book about the flyover states?’” Gaiman recalls, affecting a brassy American accent.
It was, he says, the first time he’d heard the term “flyover state” at all. “And I thought, well, probably because this is where all the good stuff is. And also, there are a million New York stories. There are a million San Francisco stories, and a million million Los Angeles stories. There are precious few Minneapolis stories,” he says, laughing. “There are even fewer small-town Wisconsin stories that get told—or told accurately.”
Gaiman has a minor bone to pick about that last point, actually. “You know, I think the first season of Fargo is magic. I think [creator] Noah Hawley is an absolute genius.” But, he says, “I watch that first season and every time I get to the fish falling from the sky, I go, you guys just said that was minus-10 degrees. And, dude, if fish fall from the sky when it’s minus-10 degrees, they are solid objects that will break the window of that car. They’re not going to be flapping around. And furthermore, the fish have to come from somewhere and everything’s frozen. You’d have to drill to get to them. So I have this kind of—” he interrupts himself, winding up again. “And for that matter, why aren’t people wearing hats?!”
Reflecting the Midwest that he knows onto the screen has been a driving goal of Gaiman’s with the American Gods adaptation. So, too, has he hoped it will speak to the American cultural and political tensions that have intensified in the 20 years since the book’s publication. The series traces the lines of history back to every group’s coming-to-America story. Not to equate them (slaves were not “immigrants” in the way European newcomers were, as Orlando Jones’ African trickster god Anansi spells out in the first season) but to connect them to the dynamics and dysfunctions of the U.S. today.
Season three dissects the latter especially, as Shadow pauses from crisscrossing the heartland to lay low in Lakeside. His presence exposes fissures in the town’s facade of harmless Americana and whimsy. “A Black lead goes to a white town and winds up suspected of crimes he did not commit,” as Gaiman puts it. “Things like that felt much more timely than they were meant to.” He credits that to the show’s writing staff this season, which was “ten percent white cis male and the rest of it everything and everybody else. And that felt right, too.”
Until-now familiar faces will also be absent for a time. Crispin Glover’s character Mr. World—menacing leader of the New Gods and the embodiment of globalization—will be played by two new actors, Dominique Jackson and Danny Trejo. And certain Old Gods, like Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones), won’t feature in the season at all.
Mr. Nancy is not in the chapters of the novel adapted this season, hence why Jones’ contract was not renewed, Gaiman says. The actor, whom Gaiman invited to take on writing duties for the fan-favorite Mr. Nancy in season two (and ended up writing for several other characters of color), has blasted Fremantle’s handling of the situation; in December 2019, he told Variety he’d been “fired” after initial talks about his return. “All I can say is what I was told,” he said at the time. “And all that I was told was, ‘angry gets shit done’ is the wrong message for Black America, and that the new showrunner [Eglee] writes from a Black male perspective.”
Gaiman is delicate in his explanation. “We didn’t want to offer the actor a seven-episode contract because we didn’t have seven episodes worth of stuff for him to do,” he says. “I think it will be fair to say that he took that very much the wrong way. In the book, he comes back at the end. [Jones] was meant to be coming back at the end.”
“I was very, very sorry to see him go,” he adds. “And I was also sorry to see him characterize it as being fired. Because it was like, no, look, Crispin Glover was not hired for seven episodes either this season. We wanted Crispin but we knew that we needed to do some other things with Mr. World before we could get back to Crispin. So, Crispin was like OK. [We told him,] ‘This season, we only need you in a couple of episodes.’ And he was great with that. Because he’s Crispin, and he didn’t take it personally. Beyond that, it’s hard to comment because he’s not in there. He’s not in that bit [of the novel].”
As for the barn-burning, angry-gets-shit-done energy Jones brought to his character? Gaiman, for his part, says he was enamored with it. (Eglee issued a statement denying Jones’ accusations in 2019. Jones, meanwhile, told press at the time that he had no “arguments or beef with Neil Gaiman,” who reached out to extend his “empathy and care” after Jones went public.)
“Oh, it was brilliant,” he says. “Orlando is great. He’s a fabulous actor and I loved his Mr. Nancy.” Still, he says, “One of the things we were definitely trying to do with this season was get it lean in terms of storytelling. Orlando, as he will be the first to tell you, wrote a lot of his material for season two. And it’s wonderful. He gives himself some fabulous speeches—but doesn’t actually move the story anywhere. And what we were concerned with in season three was trying to slim everything back down, focus on Shadow, get it back to the book. And get [the story] back to being a pulse-pounding adventure.”
Gaiman sees the series itself capping out at four seasons. “If people are still watching it and loving it, then it’s not like there’s not more story,” he notes, referencing the novellas and short story collections he’s written set in the American Gods universe. “But four would take us through to the end of the novel.”
Plus, there are always new gods being born and worshipped around us. In the series, there is a god of surveillance. A god of globalization. A goddess of new media and a volatile and petulant young deity of internet technology. Has Gaiman thought of which gods will seize power in our lives in the years ahead?
He pauses. “You know, five years ago, people were saying to me, ‘Do you think Twitter and Facebook and things will be New Gods?’ I go, ‘No, no I don’t.’ But now, I’m starting to feel that there is a god of outrage. There is the god of anger. There is something that takes us and goes, you don’t need any information about this. All you need is to be really angry,” he says. “And it can be positive anger or it can be negative anger. We don’t care. All we want to do is keep that outrage and that fuel. That’s definitely a place that social media seems to be manipulating people and becoming very god-like.
“The idea of the New Gods is they are things that we give our attention to, we give our time, we give our worship,” he continues. “And watching people addicted to the dopamine hits of anger on all sorts of social media, I’m like OK, that thing. That’s a thing that we need to try and teach people how not to do, or it will eat us.”
It’s a seductive thing, he admits. “And it’s very new. And I’m not saying that some of that anger is not legitimate. You want to be angry at Trump? Great, be angry at Trump. What did he do today? But there’s also a level on which you’re still feeding the outrage hit, and feeding it in ways that will then make his followers happier or whatever.”
All of it might have been hard to imagine when Gaiman first sat down to write American Gods in 1999. “People were talking about history being over,” he remembers. “And it seemed like we were all on track for a nice sort of Star Trek-y, everybody-loves-everybody-and-we’re-all-on-the-bridge-of-the-Enterprise-together kind of world. And then it didn’t go to that place.”
“Instead, you felt like all of the old history, all of the stuff that I was writing about in American Gods felt more relevant, and not less.” We know this for certain: “The dead past is not dead, and is not actually past.”