Good Omens and Chernobyl: The Television of 2019 We Didn’t Know We Needed

Two of the biggest shows of the summer don't look similar on the outside, but what can their popularity tell us about the world right now?

Good Omens Chernobyl

If you have been unfortunate enough to be in my vicinity lately, you will have been subjected to my almost constant talking about Good Omens and Chernobyl. I’m not a person who often sits down and watches a box set, and suddenly here come two shows in almost the same month that make me do just that? Unprecedented. On the surface, they’re not really alike; a funny, joyful romp through the end of the world, and a painfully realistic portrait of a human disaster of epic proportions? But they are. Aside from the obvious Doomsday vibe, the thing these shows have in common are that they are essential TV, making an essential comment on the state of the world right now.

First, a side step, but bear with me. There’s a very successful new musical running on Broadway right now called Hadestown. I bring it up because the show swept the Tonys and needs to be more widely known, but also because there’s a very good lyric from the show, which says ‘Let the world we dream about be the one we live in now’, and I’ve been thinking about it non-stop for months. Hadestown, and that lyric in particular, has contributed as much as Chernobyl and Good Omens to my personal summer 2019 vibe of ‘What the hell can we do about this mess we’re in?’ And Good Omens and Chernobyl go some way towards investigating that, and suggesting ways we could deal with it.

I don’t think I need to go into much detail about the actual storylines of Good Omens or Chernobyl, because if you haven’t seen them, you should just stop reading this and go to find them now. I will talk a bit about their themes though, because these are shows that are basically masterclasses for any screenwriter wanting to learn about thematic cohesion. Chernobyl is about the terrible things that humans can do, and the cost of not facing up to it. The cost of lies. How truth eventually finds a way and then where are you?

The show starts with the end, the suicide of chief scientist Valery Legasov, and then goes back to show us how we got here. The show isn’t about him, of course, but he’s our lens into this world and his suicide is a deeply upsetting end to the story. Every second of screen time builds up our themes, every character has an important role to play in illustrating some aspect of them, and Legasov is the ultimate illustration of this. The cost of lies, and fighting to free the truth, are the reason that he eventually cannot live anymore. But he did fight, and in many ways, he won, because we know his name now and we know what he – and the teams of scientists – did against the regime that was determined to keep them quiet.

Chernobyl finale

The themes of Good Omens are not so plainly spelled out as Chernobyl, but only because we are tricked into thinking that angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley are the main characters at all. They aren’t – they’re Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Timon and Pumbaa, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. That’s part of the joke – that they aren’t actually doing very much to help even though they think that they are. The real main characters, are the Antichrist Adam and his little gang of friends, and it’s with them that we find the themes of the show. Good Omens, like Chernobyl, is about the terrible things that humans do. Adam’s head is full of them, and when he goes full Antichrist, he’s determined to wipe out everyone and start again. But his friends convince him there’s a better way, and that’s the other theme – how it’s love and hard work and stubborn belief that will make things better, not pouring on the petrol and lighting a match. Even the semi-useless angel and demon characters know that bit.

So to the things the shows have in common, and what makes them essential. Well, ultimately, they’re about duty. Duty to ourselves, duty to the people around us, duty to the world, and the people who will have it after we do. And I happen to think that duty is something we should all be thinking about in real life, because if we don’t make some serious efforts and serious changes, things are not going to work out. Our planet is literally burning. Politically, we are becoming more divided along an axis of worryingly extreme views. Intellectuals are under fire for telling the truth, or trying to anyway. (That one sounds very familiar if you’ve been watching Chernobyl.)

Speaking of, in Chernobyl, there’s a line from Stellan Skarsgard’s character when he is recruiting plant workers to go to an almost certain death – ‘You will do it because it has to be done. You will do it because if you don’t, countless people will die.’ It’s a chillingly matter of fact point of view, and very Soviet, but it highlights an attitude to participating in a wider society that isn’t always the easiest thing to find in people these days. It isn’t to say that it doesn’t exist – Greta Thunberg, the founder of the school climate strikes, is a person who has that sense of society and duty, and she’s inciting thousands of young people to her cause – but it’s also not common. But the plant workers do go into the water to turn off the pumps. The clean up teams roam the radioactive countryside, tidying up the mess. The miners dig directly under the nuclear reactor. They don’t have much of a choice about it, not in the same way that we would, but they also throw themselves into the work. They all do it because they know what must be done.

In Good Omens, the duty is a very personal one for Adam. Whereas in Chernobyl, many people could step up and make the sacrifice, he is the only one who can face down his Satan dad and call off the end of the world. In a moment of despair, he asks what he can do, because he’s only a kid, and Aziraphale tells him that he’s very human, with a human’s sense of good and bad, and he can make a difference in the face of impossible odds (a very Pratchettian notion). So Adam does it – argues down Satan and saves the world in his very human, very childlike way. The key here is that although he has to take on the duty alone, he isn’t by himself in doing it – Aziraphale and Crowley hold his hands, and his friends are there too, dreaming of a better world with him. They are the ones who face down Famine, War and Pollution, with their belief that things can be better. The book of Good Omens was written in 1990 but the kids have been updated and feel very contemporary – if they were real, they would be marching in the school strikes.

good omens

Good television has always been a reflection of the times, a mirror we can look into and see ourselves as we are, and as we could be. Duty, and the human capacity to perform it for the good, is the mirror that we need right now, to show us the way. Chernobyl was a huge cultural touchstone for this year, reaching a wide and varied audience – that IMDb rating still beggars belief. Good Omens will pick up a lot of people that Chernobyl might not have, especially young ones who will relate to Adam and his friends in terms of their anxieties and concerns about the world they will inherit. Both shows have come along at precisely the right time – it is hard to imagine any of the previous Good Omen attempts at a screen adaptation being as good or as relevant as this one.

I don’t want to boil either of these shows down to only the ‘message’, because they’re more than that as well. They’re a tragedy and a comedy, dark and bleak, warm and optimistic, and both of them completely compelling. But as we’ve seen, they don’t shy away from shining a light on the world as it is right now, and the things we as humans beings have to do to make it better. The rules according to Chernobyl and Good Omens are as follows. We have to accept we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We have to accept that the way change happens is to make a very deliberate decision. We have to accept that ignoring the truth only gets us so far. We have to accept that there’s things we are good and bad at, but everyone is capable of something.

And, most importantly, we have to accept that the time has come – ‘let the world we dream about be the one we live in now.’

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