In 1990, Terry Pratchett, acclaimed British satirist and creator of the Discworld fantasy series, and Neil Gaiman, a then-rising talent known for dark meditations on mythology like Sandman and American Gods, joined forces to find out what two demons were doing lurking in a graveyard. The result was the instant classic best-seller Good Omens. Never before or since has the apocalypse been so enjoyable, so heart-warming, or so very, very British. I am happy to say that the Amazon Prime TV adaptation of the same name, directed by Douglas Mackinnon, is every bit as wonderful as the source material, if a little less biting.
Here’s the basic pitch: An angel, Aziraphale, and a demon, Crowley, have “gone native” and find themselves enjoying their time on Earth, as well as the humans that inhabit it. After decades of cautious friendship, the two join forces to try to avert Armageddon by preventing the Antichrist from activating his powers. Unfortunately, when their charge comes of age, they realize they’ve been keeping track of the wrong kid – they’ve mislaid the Antichrist. With less than a week until the end of the world, the pair is in a race against time to save the planet both Heaven and Hell want to destroy.
This novel is challenging to adapt for television in the best of circumstances, and I will admit to being nervous about it. Good Omens the book is a sprawling story in every sense of the word, stretching from quiet countryside gardens to Satanic convents to the deepest pits of Hell. It keeps multiple plates spinning in the air at all times, including a giant cast of characters, the looming threat of the end times, baffling prophecies, and a narrator who can’t seem to decide whether to praise humanity’s flaws or condemn them. Not all these plates stay afloat even in the novel (I’ll get back to this), so deciding which would make the final cut in an adaptation must have been a monumental task. Fortunately, the man doing the adapting was none other than the novel’s co-author Neil Gaiman.
Gaiman is massively successful in penning the screenplay, capturing the warm-hearted spirit of the apocalyptic satire. He has wisely eliminated some of those spinning plates and focused more exclusively on the two main characters, Aziraphale (played by Michael Sheen) and Crowley (David Tennant). Several memorable new sequences involving these two have been added, and they only serve to deepen your love for these characters, while also bringing the story to perhaps a more satisfying conclusion than what was presented in the original novel (in my opinion). Sheen and Tennant have excellent chemistry, and fully embody their roles in what are sure to be iconic performances. Sheen dithers along as the fussy, naïve angel, and Tennant’s arrogant swagger alone should be enough to earn him an Emmy. The scenes they share are easily some of the best in the series. You don’t just believe these two supernatural entities care for each other – you feel it deep within your bones in each and every one of their conversations as Aziraphale stares fondly into Crowley’s yellow snake-eyes.
As the world races on towards destruction and the cast balloons, we’re treated to even more talented British (and not-so-British) actors. Jack Whitehall shines an unlucky witchfinder, and Adria Arjona brings an air of no-nonsense girl power to Anathema Device, the witch he eventually finds. A plucky cast of newcomers plays the young, impressionable Antichrist Adam Young and his three loyal (human) friends, known collectively as “Them,” the best collection of child actors on television since Stranger Things. Ned Dennehy is particularly hilarious as Hastur, a demon who incompetently dogs Crowley throughout the miniseries, and Jon Hamm brings cheerful bureaucratic menace to the warmongering archangel Gabriel.
These characters are only a small portion of the overall cast, which brings me to the only real flaw in both the novel and the TV series – the cast becomes so sprawling that at times the narrative begins to feel a little bit uneven. The trimming of several non-essential characters and plots has greatly helped this in the adaptation, as has the renewed focus on the two main characters, but the plot can sometimes begin to feel unfocused and a mite confusing.
Part of this is intentional: Good Omens shares the same non sequitur pacing as classic British comedy shows like Monty Python, jumping from one unrelated scene to another. If you’re unsure whether you’ll like this style of storytelling, it makes itself very apparent in the opening minutes of the show, so you’ll be able to quickly judge whether it works for you. Even though Gaiman has somewhat streamlined the story, it’s still full of many of the wonderful asides that make the novel so memorable and its world so rich. And the genius of Good Omens is the final realization that none of these seemingly unconnected scraps were unconnected after all – each one was necessary to get us to our final destination.
Setting aside the few added scenes and the even fewer lost ones, Good Omens is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the source material, right down to the wry, all-knowing narrator (Frances McDormand as an exuberantly ineffable God). I was personally both overjoyed and shocked by how closely the series clung to the novel, both in terms of plot and character. I’m so used to blockbusters not trusting a story enough to put butts in seats (looking at you, Hobbit), that a piece of media that is so trusting of the authors’ original vision is a breath of fresh air. Sometimes an added action set-piece isn’t necessary to build tension and raise stakes.
The TV-MA rating is probably necessary. Parents, there are a few dropped f-bombs (one very memorably by Aziraphale, one of Sheen’s best line deliveries), and some non-graphic nudity, as well as a troubling scene involving the crucifixion of Jesus that made me wince and think, “Wow, they really went there.” On the whole, however, the adaptation is missing some of the book’s sharper edges. The series touches on the book’s eviscerations of fast food, capitalism, and humanity’s environmental misdeeds, as well as the human tendency to overvalue one’s individual importance, but all of that feels a bit softer in the TV series. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, and I would argue that for this series the decision to move further away from satire and more towards a heart-warming tale about the power of human love made for a more accessible and pleasurable viewing experience. It gave me the warm and fuzzies.
More than anything else, Good Omens is simply a pleasure to watch. At its core, it is a story of people who are told not to love and care for each other daring to do it anyway. An angel and a demon who save each other throughout history. An Antichrist who comes to love the place and the people he was born to destroy. Witch-hunters who find belonging among witches. The list goes on. Good Omens posits that for all the flaws Heaven and Hell see in Earthlings, the human capacity to love when tradition and society insists one should hate is the greatest weapon at the end of the world. It’s an inspirational and optimistic idea that could, dare I say it, change the world. Or at least end it.
Go watch this series. I give it 9 out of 10 misplaced flaming swords.