Opinion: It is a miracle a show like ‘Good Omens’ exists4 min read . Updated: 07 Jun 2019, 10:00 AM IST
- Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman collaborated on the 1990 novel the show’s based on
- Gaiman is the showrunner and has written all the episodes
It is a miracle Good Omens exists. As a book, it stands as a wondrous artefact authored by two incredible fantasists working—even more incredibly—in tandem. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman had written that 1990 novel mostly over the phone, a parody of the film The Omen growing into something more fiendish and clever and theologically provocative as they bickered and giggled, and, this being a book about the end of the world, presumably finished each other’s sentencers.
Gaiman, who likens the experience of being asked by Pratchett to collaborate on a book to “Michelangelo ringing you up to come draw a few ceilings", was at a loss when the novelist died in 2015, having made the younger writer promise to adapt their novel. This he has gamely done, producing, show-running and writing every episode of this Amazon Prime series, sweating as his old friend would have liked to see.
The results are suitably odd. Good Omens is a highly cinematic novel, a book about an angel and a demon plotting to stall the apocalypse because, after thousands of years among us, they have taken to our trappings. They like books and Bentleys and wine, and would hate to see all that go up in holy flames. No side can win without the other. As the book reminds: “The Devil has all the best tunes…. But Heaven has the best choreographers."
As shows go, this feels less choreographed and simultaneously more tuneful. It is a miniseries where the credits at the end of each episode feel like a cocoa-break between chapters, and the cast reads like a wish list: Michael Sheen and David Tennant as Aziraphale and Crowley, Jon Hamm as the Archangel Gabriel, Michael McKean as Witchfinder Shadwell, Miranda Richardson as Madame Tracy, Brian Cox voicing Death and Frances McDormand voicing God. It feels like an event.
That event might, however, be a pantomime. Glorious goofiness steers this slapdash enterprise, and Good Omens isn’t the slickest or edgiest or most revolutionary thing you will see on television this season. Even as the plot thickens, it is forever playing catch-up with the bouncy sketch-comedy style, the spoofy absurdity, the intentionally daft visual effects.
It, therefore, feels out of time. The gags are bookish, the flow is indulgent, the characters aren’t as smart-mouthed as those on the shows we love today, rolling their eyes at the camera and speaking exclusively in snark. Watching Good Omens is like discovering a delightful vintage series you somehow never knew existed. This is a show for those who love the book, and who love classic British comedy. It feels written in distinctly unsharpened pencil: not like a great episode of a great show, but those seasonal specials where the writing is wonky, characters play to their best punchlines, and everyone lets their hair down. Consider it Blackadder’s Christmas Carol.
Just as all audio-cassettes metamorphose into Queen’s Greatest Hits when left in a car long enough, all novels turn into romances given enough time. Thirty years on, the interplay between opposing angels Aziraphale and Crowley resembles a timeless love story between good and evil. Sheen is a fantastic Aziraphale, eternally horrified and easily placated, a perfect foil to Tennant’s reptilian Crowley, wherein the lean actor channels both Bill Nighy and Nicolas Cage to intoxicating effect. Their chemistry is a treat, Tennant using the word “Angel" pointedly yet with affection—the way Edmund Blackadder (mockingly) called on Captain Darling—and Sheen barely keeping himself from blushing. The pair commandeer the narrative, leaving little room for assorted delights: the motorcycle riders of the apocalypse barely get a WORD in.
It’s a fiercely loyal adaptation, right down to the magnificent McDormand delivering the sharpest lines, but while some bits of the book don’t shine—the bicycling small-town children slow things down, for instance, till Things get truly Strange—new additions work. Jon Hamm is a riot as the Archangel Gabriel, a painfully by-the-book boss who loves The Sound Of Music, jogs wearing a cardigan with a winged logo, and is utterly awful at subterfuge. Who knew heaven would be home to the boss from hell?
Besides gags, Good Omens has much to say about divinity and compromise, about the nature-vs-nurture argument, about how important it is to believe in what everyone else may not, and to be nice—in both senses of the word.
Is this a show you will enjoy if you haven’t read, or loved, the book? I find that impossible to say. It’s patchy, often too laboured and defiantly, firmly nuts—a style certainly swallowed easier on page than screen. It works for me, as I imagine the great Terry Pratchett winking from beyond our earthly disc at Gaiman, urging him to turn up the all-star cardboard lunacy.
Here’s why I think it’s a miracle: because it knows it’s not for everybody, but exists to reward its own chattering choir. Ultimately, Good Omens is a show for friends of the book and for books written with friends. In the truest sense, this is a companion piece.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.
He tweets at @rajasen