TV Review: Good Omens

TV Review: Good Omens June 19, 2019

Summary: A joyous and long-overdue adaptation, even if it tries a little too hard to be faithful to the book.

“Current theories on the creation of the Universe state that, if it was created at all and didn’t just start, as it were, unofficially, it came into being between ten and twenty thousand million years ago. By the same token the earth itself is generally supposed to be about four and a half thousand million years old.

These dates are incorrect.

Medieval Jewish scholars put the date of the Creation at 3760 B.C. Greek Orthodox theologians put Creation as far back as 5508 B.C.

These suggestions are also incorrect.

Archbishop James Usher (1580-1656) published Annales Veteris et Novi Testamenti in 1654, which suggested that the Heaven and the Earth were created in 4004 B.C. One of his aides took the calculation further, and was able to announce triumphantly that the Earth was created on Sunday the 21th of October, 4004 B.C., at exactly 9:00 A.M., because God liked to get work done early in the morning while he was feeling fresh.

This too was incorrect. By almost a quarter of an hour.”

I watched Good Omens on Amazon Prime, a TV adaptation of the classic comedic fantasy by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman about a devil and an angel who strike up the universe’s most unlikely friendship.

Crowley (née Crawly) was the serpent who tempted Eve into eating the apple; Aziraphale was the angel who guarded the gates of Eden after the first couple was tossed out (except he seems to have misplaced his flaming sword).

Crowley has been on Earth ever since, an agent of Hell working to tempt people into sin and cause misery. Aziraphale has also stayed, under command of Heaven to strengthen people’s moral fiber and dispense blessings. In practice, they cancel each other out most of the time, so they come to a tacit arrangement to spare themselves the bother and just report to their respective superiors that the divine/unholy plan is proceeding on schedule.

What’s more, after six thousand years of each being the only face that the other repeatedly encounters, their friendly rivalry develops into just plain friendship. The more time they spend together, the more they discover that they have more in common with each other than either does with the side they’re supposedly representing.

Their comfortable existence is interrupted by the birth of the Antichrist, a child with unearthly powers who’s supposed to bring about the final war between Heaven and Hell. The boy is supposed to be adopted by a powerful American diplomat, but due to a complicated series of mix-ups that the show analogizes with a three-card monte game, he ends up being raised by a couple from a peaceful, rural English village.

With just a few days remaining until Armageddon, Crowley and Aziraphale discover that they’ve lost track of the real Antichrist, which is a development that their respective bosses are going to be very unhappy about. With catastrophe barreling down on them, they both decide that they like the Earth too much to let it burn, and they resolve to work together to prevent the apocalypse.

There’s a lot more to the story as well, including a legendary book of prophecy written by the most accurate and therefore least popular seer in history, whose descendants have been untangling her cryptic verses for hundreds of years; a coven of Satanic nuns; a crusty would-be witch hunter who remembers the good old days; and last but not least, the Four Horsepeople of the Apocalypse: a journalist who has an uncanny knack for showing up at trouble spots just before war breaks out; a diet guru whose high-tech meal plan will make you think you’re eating nothing at all; a roving tramp who’s held odd jobs in nuclear power plants, rusty oil tankers, petrochemical corporations, and plastics factories; and a fourth, who doesn’t change much with the times.

Although I was eagerly anticipating this series, I was a little concerned about how it would fare in adaptation. So much of the novel’s humor comes from the language, from jokes and word play that don’t translate to a visual medium. One of my favorite passages ever is a grumpy neighborhood busybody who can’t figure out how to tell Crowley that his car is on fire; it makes sense in context.

The script for the TV version was written by Neil Gaiman, who clearly feels a sense of responsibility to his departed and much-missed friend and collaborator, and tries to preserve the Pratchettesque touches as faithfully as possible. It usually works, but if anything, the show errs on the side of being too faithful, leaning on narrator and voice of God Frances McDormand to explain some of the jokes. There were places that could have used a lighter touch.

The show tries to condense the novel’s tangle of subplots into a few hours, and some of them suffer from the compression. Even so, it drags whenever its two main characters aren’t on screen. Michael Sheen is just right as Aziraphale: fussy, put-upon, outwardly meek and obedient but harboring a secret spark of rebellion against the callous heavenly bureaucracy he serves. But David Tennant steals every scene as Crowley, the snake-eyed demon with a rock-star swagger. I wondered what mannerisms he adopted to inhabit the role so perfectly, and then I figured it out: he moves like a snake with hips.

In fact, some of my favorite parts were new scenes that aren’t in the novel, like an extended montage showing Crowley and Aziraphale repeatedly encountering each other over the span of history, from Noah’s ark to the fall of Rome to the French Revolution to London during the Blitz. This alone could be turned into a series that I would happily watch. (Gaiman leans hard into teasing that their relationship may be more than just friendship. At one point, I said to my wife, “I’ve never watched a show that’s its own fanfiction before.”) There’s also a clever, tense epilogue that shows what happens when Heaven and Hell seek revenge on their wayward agents.

Despite some of the novel’s dated touches (including an old-fashioned tape answering machine that plays a critical role), the apocalyptic theme is, unfortunately, more timely and relevant than ever. When the real world is careening toward disaster, the least you can do is laugh about it. And who knows? As in the story, the future of humanity may prove to be ineffable after all.

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