Everything pointed toward Good Omens being one of the TV highlights of 2019 yet, in truth, it could likely turn out to be one of the year’s greatest disappointments.
The ‘why?’ of this is, to an extent, confounding. Good Omens derives from much loved source material, a one-off 1990 fantasy comic novel by the joint literary powerhouses of Neil Gaiman and the late, great Terry Pratchett. It tells an epic, cosmic story across 6000 years of human history, tackling the classic Biblical concept of Armageddon and the rise of the Anti-Christ through a delightfully oddball British lens. It is festooned with a variety of inventive comic characters, from ancient angels and demons through to surly modern witchfinders and ever-present prophets. It never takes itself too seriously while remaining a potent reminder, right at the end of the Cold War era, of man’s ability to self-destruct in the most apocalyptic of ways. It is also underpinned by an unlikely, history-spanning friendship between two ideological enemies which, again, reflects the end of an era. The world is ending. Long live the world.
While personally I don’t consider Good Omens anywhere near the best work of Pratchett or Gaiman, lacking the finesse, wit and structure of their strongest novels, there is no reason Good Omens couldn’t and shouldn’t have made for a strong TV adaptation. And TV is certainly the ideal medium for a fractured, multi-strand, ensemble story that weaves everyone together at the end. Terry Gilliam was all set to make it in the early 2000’s with Johnny Depp & Robin Williams headlining, boasting a script Gaiman claims was in fine fettle, but you wonder just how adequately a two hour or so film could have threaded everything in Good Omens together. TV gives it room to breathe, room to build up the core dynamic between angel Aziraphale & demon Crowley which exists at the heart of the book. Gaiman’s scripts all live up to this over the six parts and yet… it doesn’t work.
The more I think about why Good Omens doesn’t work, the more the answer becomes… well, ineffable.
Before he died, and long after the planned cinematic adaptation, Terry Pratchett asked Neil Gaiman if he would adapt the long-gestating take on Good Omens, which they had always agreed to only work on together. It was a friendship you can feel reflected in the dynamic Gaiman roots this TV adaptation in.
Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and Crowley (David Tennant) have been around since the beginning of life on earth, or 4004BC to be exact, and Good Omens charts their unlikely repartee from the Garden of Eden as Crowley arrives as the snake of original sin, and Aziraphale gives Adam fire. Both, in their own way, spark the beginning of the human race, and subsequently track it over the 6000 years of history before the prophesied Armageddon, the Biblical confrontation between Heaven/Hell, God/Satan, via the arrival of the Anti-Christ. Good Omens takes the core creation/destruction myth of Christianity and digests it through Pratchett and Gaiman’s joint lens. The book is a blend of Pratchett’s satirical, comedic absurdity, fun asides and jovial wordplay, fused with Gaiman’s own gift with dialogue and fantastical dreamscapes. It tells a very serious story about the end of humanity without ever taking it too seriously.
Gaiman, alongside series director Douglas MacKinnon, shoots for that same tone in this TV version – which in many senses is more of a six-hour movie than a series in its own right. The same writer and director allows for a tonal and visual consistency as the story of Adam Young (Sam Taylor Buck), an average boy in the small Oxfordshire village of Tadfield, realises he is the Anti-Christ, all while beautiful witch Anathema Device (Adria Arjona) teams up with bookish, awkward witch finder in training Newton Pulsifer (Jack Whitehall), to unravel the Armageddon-predicting prophecies of Anathema’s 17th century ancestor, Agnes Nutter (Josie Lawrence). It is a story that needs space to develop the myriad cluster of characters who weave in and out of the narrative, and six episodes does allow Gaiman room to steadily escalate the tale – we don’t even meet Newton, Anathema and Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell (Michael McKean) until the second episode The Book, such is the amount of plot, despite them being key characters.
Thematically is where Good Omens works best. While on one meta level feeling like a wink to Pratchett & Gaiman’s friendship, Aziraphale & Crowley’s central union as key agents of Heaven and Hell—both of whom want to prevent Armageddon because they quite like Earth and living there—reflects our own current moral ambiguity. A key message of Gaiman’s text here is that Heaven isn’t quite full of beautiful, perfect people and Hell might not be stacked with purely evil beings either; what lies beyond, or the forces of our creation, are just as flawed and complicated as we are, and maybe we’re all a little bit good and evil all at once. Moreover, Good Omens can also be read as a desire for us to try and repair the stark cultural, social and political differences tearing us asunder right now; if Aziraphale and Crowley can overcome their very clear, built in differences for a common good, then can’t we all? These ideas all ripple under Gaiman’s story.
Equally, Gaiman presents Heaven and Hell as one gigantic, incorporeal expression of ultimate conglomeration and corporate procedure. Armageddon to beings such as Gabriel (a delightfully pompous Jon Hamm) feels more like a technicality than a shattering ideological concept or conflict. It is a piece of God’s ‘great plan’ to be accomplished, even if neither he or his Hell-bound opposite Lord Beelzebub (Anna Maxwell Martin) entirely understand why. Finale episode The Very Last Day of the Rest of Our Lives displays Heaven as a sleek, roomy top floor of a corporate building while Hell is the grungy, badly maintained basement. Gaiman is almost suggesting they are founded on the same structure and it is merely rules, rituals and arcane proceedures that make it so. It exists this way because it has always existed this way, and Aziraphale & Crowley are the first two of their kind to question that status quo. Aziraphale literally asks God for guidance at one point but ends up being put through to her PR voicemail, Metatron (a tetchy Derek Jacobi), in perhaps the ultimate expression of corporate structure.
Yes, God is a she in Good Omens, voiced by Frances McDormand, though never seen. God has a ‘great plan’ and an ‘ineffable plan’ (and one of the best things about Good Omens is that Armageddon is averted thanks to a terminology technicality), and merely narrates the tale steadily across all six episodes. Gaiman’s series is heavily about interpretation on behalf of the characters; In The Beginning kicks off the core plot through a mix up of interpretation between a cadre of nuns which results in the core baby swop of the Anti-Christ going wrong; Anathema spends her entire life living by the prophetic instructions laid down centuries earlier by Agnes. Good Omens is all about how only through breaking existing structures, strictures and rules can we actually end up saving the world, mainly from ourselves. There are plenty of supernatural forces at work in Good Omens but much of the evil wrought is thanks to choices made by many of the characters.
With all of these huge philosophical, metaphysical ideas swirling around in the brew, why then does Good Omens fail to come alive?
Despite occasional points when you suspect the budget was thinner than they would have liked (the airbase runway finale smacks of that, and in one scene with Adam and his pals supposedly set in a forest you can hear traffic in the background), this BBC/Amazon co-production looks good, or at least as impressive as a modestly successful two-part episode of Doctor Who – a show the series resembles in more than a few ways, in fact, not just thanks to Tennant’s involvement. On a production level, while it lacks the cinematic scope many creatives are bringing these days to prestige television, it is perfectly well put together. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with Gaiman’s scripts either, even if he is a stronger craftsman of prose than he is screenwriting. Most of Good Omens problems stem from two key sources: structure and performance.
Good Omens is quite faithfully adapted by Gaiman in terms of book structure and this ends up being a double edged sword. There is a lot going on in Good Omens, the book, and not all of it has a clear through-line which can easily be adapted, nor indeed is the show able to fully explore all of the enjoyable rabbit holes particularly Pratchett liked to take readers down. A good example is The Chattering Order of St Beryl, who play a fairly key role in In The Beginning, but the key to them is a really funny notes aside Pratchett drops in the book which is entirely absent from the show. This happens more than once. It forces Gaiman to lean more deeply into the comic drama or the visual fantasy trappings, when the high points of Good Omens lay more in the wordplay entanglement of the comedy on the page. This is also extremely hard to adapt.
Terry Pratchett reminds me of David Renwick, the writer of BBC hits One Foot in the Grave and Jonathan Creek who, certainly on the former show, would quite obsessively ghost-direct scenes so the actors delivered a line he had written in a particular way for maximum comic effect. Good Omens feels like it needed Pratchett there at times to help the cast bring out some of these moments or lines which, more often than not, they really struggle to do. This brings me onto performance because quite a few of these casting choices seem not just off but misjudged. What possessed them to have Michael McKean playing Shadwell I will never know. McKean is a great actor but a purveyor of a great Scottish accent he is not, and when you have an actual Scottish actor of some renown in your cast (Bill Paterson) playing a much smaller role, it serves as even more of a baffling and, if one were cynical, American-audience baiting decision.
Arjona is, equally, unable to bring out Anathema’s balance of quirk and steel from the source material, and suffers from zero chemistry with Whitehall (a fairly intolerable comedian who does his best as the nervy Newton), when their dynamic should fizzle with awkward sexual tension. Even Sheen and Tennant, the lodestone’s of the entire show, don’t seem to be at their best; Tennant can do a Crowley in his sleep now but he’s just doing a more morally objectionable version of The Doctor (Crowley is probably the nicest demon ever put on screen), while Sheen has all the slightly officious, uptight restraint of Aziraphale but still can’t quite make the jokes land. They’re not bad in these roles. I wouldn’t say any of the performers are necessarily bad, but some are powerfully miscast. Like McKean mangles Scottish vowels, many of the actors—like young Taylor Buck—simply fail to bring these scripts alive.
Quite how this happened is hard to square because everything about Good Omens should sing, given the wealth of talent in front of and behind the camera. Yet it never gets off the starting grid. It feels curiously old fashioned in the modern TV era, like a BBC adaptation plucked out of about 1997, and while on some level that lends it a redolent charm, it often just feels laboured, flat and stodgy.
Yet, ineffably, I don’t have any idea how you could do Good Omens any better.
★ ★ 1/2
DIRECTOR: Douglas MacKinnon
WRITERS: Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett
CAST: Michael Sheen, David Tennant, Sam Taylor Buck, Frances McDormand, Daniel Mays, Jon Hamm, Miranda Richardson, Michael McKean