Like Gaiman’s other big page-to-screen success story, The Sandman, the first run of Good Omens was by and large a workmanlike adaptation of an original which had been rather special. This second lot is, all too clearly, something intended as a script from the start (beyond the vague ideas of a sequel that Gaiman and the sorely missed Terry Pratchett threw around a long time ago) – and this is to its advantage.
This time, the production isn’t lumbered throughout with Frances McDormand’s voiceover role as God. It seems a shame to tear down such a turn, but in action it fell into the usual trap of having our humble narrator read out long, long passages of the original book which couldn’t otherwise be translated to screen. Here, there’s no such confusion, nor anything as futile as McDormand saying ‘the dog growled’ as we are shown, and hear, a dog growling.
One of the more original – and strongest – parts of the first run was the third episode’s half-hour cold open, which gave us various snapshots of Michael Sheen’s Aziraphale and David Tennant’s Crowley going on various adventures through history. The second season has leant firmly into that, but despite Tennant’s presence much of it comes off less Doctor Who and more The Good Place, as Tennant and his bold-quotation-marks life companion Sheen navigate various moral mazes.
(Good Omens does, practically mugging to camera, nod to Doctor Who more than once.)
The stakes are – if not lower than the first run, then certainly seem like it. The looming possibility of the end of days is still rattling around in the background, but with it having been foiled once, it simply can’t hold the same weight. But then, with its firm focus on the more interpersonal side of Sheen and Tennant’s dynamic duo, it doesn’t need to be quite so grandiose in its stakes.
Here the main hook is that famous angel Gabriel turns up on the door of Sheen’s bookshop, stark naked and with no memories. This doesn’t devolve completely into one of those mind-the-baby farces, but runs closer to that than you’d like. Most curiously, co-writer John Finnemore has always been a dab hand at both writing and playing helpful, good-natured idiots, but the amnesiac Gabriel only ever dips his toes in that kind of role, never really taking it beyond the background.
(Though Quelin Sepulveda’s helplessly obliging junior angel does make up for that a bit.)
It’s one of those open-ended plot hooks – what’s going on? – which, to be honest, ends up too open-ended. Open enough, certainly, to somehow end up encompassing another major pillar of the narrative, the relationship-teasing between Nina Sosanya and Maggie Service (playing characters actually called Nina and Maggie), which Sheen and Tennant claim they’re using as cover for an out-of-control miracle but clearly want to happen for its own sake.
The issue is, Sosanya and Service do not have the chemistry to carry this. They certainly don’t have anything like the chemistry between Sheen and Tennant, which was of course always the central pillar of the whole edifice. On some level this is apt, since they’re being artificially manoeuvred into this fanfic-style pairing, but that still doesn’t help when the show is trying to actually sell it as a potential romance. And these weaker performances can’t help but suffer further when they’re in amongst kingfish like Reece Shearsmith, being as grumpy and put-upon as he ever has been.
There’s something of the pantomime to Good Omens’s second season, the kind of fanciful, knowingly narrative-distorted version of reality that Sir Terry made his stock in trade. This can probably be summarised best in that it actually presents a foggy London street scene, an image that still holds great currency in fiction and myth but which hasn’t actually happened in reality since the mid-twentieth century.
This stagey silliness infects every corner of the production, and can’t help but make it seem very tonally jarring when someone lets loose a four-letter-word – not to mention when people end up fighting the literal legions of hell by letting off fire extinguishers at them. The swearing, frankly, is the only thing standing between Good Omens and, at worst, a PG rating.
Likewise, this panto air is the only thing that can excuse Miranda ‘Queenie’ Richardson’s campy performance. She’s the closest thing to a real antagonist, yet spends an awful lot of her screen time on the edge of the stage waiting for her next cue. Worse still, she’s already been so thoroughly undermined by her bumbling underlings that when that cue comes, you can’t help but think ‘so what?’
(Really, this role should have gone to Doon Mackichan, who’s present as another bigwig in the heaven/hell hierarchy, and can play verycold and hard when she wants to.)
But what’s even more jarring is once the main conflict wraps up, and everyone’s dusting themselves down (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here), the show hits you with a tooth-loosening left hook of many of the main characters suddenly acting like real people. Romances are suddenly not a Jane Austeny matter of lining up the pieces, and our protagonists actually talk through their feelings and desires.
This could, very easily, have come across as a completely unwarranted tonal shift. Instead it achieves some poignancy, and I do have to put this down in large part to Sheen and Tennant hard at work. Again, they’re the centrepiece, they’re our main through-line from the original run, and there’s myriad good reasons for that.
While Good Omens: Season 2 hasn’t given itself over entirely to being The Aziraphale And Crowley Show, you do get a sense it wouldn’t be averse to that. After all, the first season’s main change from the book was to edge in that direction. But if there is a facet of it which it should definitely lean into more, it’s that emotional fluency that it inexplicably only deploys in the last quarter of an hour.
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An enjoyable enough romp, with something of a sting in the tail, but one which suffers from a recurring inability to take itself seriously. It’s a show where David Tennant drives a magic car, the silliness is already spoken for.
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