Choirs of satanic nuns? Flaming Bentleys? Witches on the loose? Don’t worry, It’s just the end of the world. And we have Neil Gaiman, Amazon, and the BBC to thank for it.
Despite the many years and failed attempts it’s taken to get a solid adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s acclaimed comic novel Good Omens off the ground, Gaiman insists it couldn’t have happened at any other time, and I’m inclined to believe him. Pratchett strived for an adaptation ever since its publication in 1990, but plans with big names like Terry Gilliam (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Monty Python) fell through before they could take off. Eventually it became a lingering wish, and Pratchett asked Gaiman to write the script for him. When he passed away in 2015, following a long-term battle with a rare form of Alzheimer’s, Gaiman felt the task become something of a last request from his good friend.
The result is a five-year production that has succeeded in updating Pratchett’s trademark humour and Gaiman’s boundless imagination for a 21st Century audience. Technology from the novel has been upgraded to include video calls, smart phones, and jokes on contemporary political trends, but the essence of the story remains faithful to its original, thanks to a compassionate and well-rounded script from Gaiman himself. It contains twelve hundred CGI shots throughout, showcasing some of the best special effects the world has to offer, and according to John Hamm (Gabriel) it’s ‘the best version of it they could have possibly done’.
The book’s fantasy elements were always going to be a challenge to recreate, and the team at Milk, led by VFX expert Jean-Claude Deguara (Fantastic Beasts, Altered Carbon) have succeeded in bringing a rich and diverse world to life, delivering flaming Bentleys, winged demons, and the garden of Eden through a mixture of prosthetics, pyrotechnics, and post-production green-screen effects. Their integration with the show’s live actors and locations feels mostly flawless and reflects Deguara’s ambition to keep a balance between delivering impact and grounding its characters in reality. It’s hard, seeing the complexity of this tale, with its subplots and visually demanding scenes, how past feature-length projects could’ve possible done it justice.
Despite a heroic attempt, there are admittedly (and perhaps unavoidably) some elements of Good Omens that suffer in translation. The series attempts to recreate the comic charm of the book by delivering original lines through voice-overs (the voice of God), echoing Terry Pratchett’s Discworld adaptations (The Colour of Magic, Hogfather), however at times the ever present narrator feels cloying and unnecessary – telling watchers what’s happening rather than letting the action speak for itself. But thankfully the intensity of these intrusions grows less as the episodes go on, and the script, visuals and actors are given room to breathe.
The bulk of the six-part series follows angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and Demon Crowley (David Tennant) as they team up to try and prevent the apocalypse. After thousands of years on earth, they’ve realised they have far more in common with each other than with either Heaven or Hell, and that living in the mortal world has become far more preferable to either. Their on-screen bromance will be enough to get any fan hot under the collar, but their relationship seems to highlight the value of friendship and challenge preconceptions of morality and masculinity. Through their journey Aziraphale and Crowley realise none of us are inherently good or evil (whatever side we’re on), masculine or feminine, one race or another, and that we’re always something in-between. It shows how being ‘in-between’ is actually our biggest strength.
Sheen’s performance glows with heart, outshining Tennant from the get-go with a range of emotions and subtlety that make comic moments hilarious and casual lines sing with meaning. The comparison highlights Tennant’s two main characteristics as an actor – the moody anti-hero (Broadchurch, Hamlet) and the exuberant adventurer (Doctor Who), and it’s clear now that his performance in Good Omens flits somewhere between the two. And whilst it works, and fans will have a fun time looking for the Doctor Who Easter eggs that have been confirmed to appear in the series, there are times when his delivery feels a little Tennant-By-Numbers. His undeniably cool demeanour, bespoke rock ‘n’ roll costumes, and Queen soundtrack however, make up for this in spades and still make him a thrilling demon to watch on screen.
Surprise appearances from stars such as Jack Whitehall, Miranda Richardson, and League of Gentlemen founders Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, and Mark Gatiss keep things fresh and entertaining, and some (most notably Whitehall) surprise further with performances far removed from their usual comfort zones. Whitehall takes on both the roles of Newton Pulsifer, software engineer and his ancestor ‘Thou-Shall-Not-Commit-Adultery’ Pulsifer, who was responsible for burning Agnes Nutter at the stake. Newton becomes a modern day apprentice Witchfinder after meeting Shadwell (Michael McKean) by chance, and their investigations lead to a quaint English village, where the Anti-Christ is about to trigger Doomsday. His story interlinks with both Aziraphale, Crowley, and the last descendant of Agnes Nutter, Witch, who is not quite what he imagined. The subplot is extremely rewarding, offering many of the show’s funniest and most poignant moments, and further support from big names such as John Hamm (Gabriel) and Benedict Cumberpatch (The Devil) give Good Omens an air of glitz and glamour that any production would be envious of.
At times it feels a little too slick and safe though. I would have loved see the show take a few more risks, but as it stands this is still great family-friendly entertainment. The series has ultimately succeeded in bringing to life a classic novel, updating it for a new generation in a way that doesn’t detract from the original, whilst being both visually creative, and devilishly stylish. When it comes down to the final battle between TV good and evil, Good Omens can only be deemed a winner. It is both heavenly entertaining, and hellishly good fun. But don’t forget to savour each hour-long episode, for they’ll be over before you can say ‘Anti-Christ’. Gaiman has categorically dismissed the idea of a sequel, on the grounds that it’s taken nearly five years to write and produce this one – and personally, I think it would be foolhardy to try.
Good Omens is the joint legacy of two distinguished writers, and as it stands is a fitting tribute to Terry Pratchett’s memory. In the end I agree with Tennant when he expressed his exhaustion with never-ending TV franchises in an interview with Digital Spy, and highlighted the strength and appeal of a series watchers know will have a limited run.
Good Omens is a visually stunning fantasy, with stylish sets, very British humour, and just the right mix of emotion and poignancy.