‘Good Omens’: A Rollicking, Resolutely English Romp Through the Apocalypse

‘Good Omens’: A Rollicking, Resolutely English Romp Through the Apocalypse June 10, 2019

Michael Sheen and David Tennant in ‘Good Omens’/Amazon Prime

Dare I say it, but Amazon Prime’s adaptation of Good Omens is fun, witty, clever, entertaining and just plain, well, good.

Based on the apparently beloved novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett, Good Omens (all episodes are currently available) is a bit like what might happen if one threw The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Monty Python, Harry Potter, Doctor Who and The Omen into a blender and hit puree.

It focuses on the angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) — who mislaid his flaming sword at the Garden of Eden — and the demon Crowley (David Tennant) — the snake-eyed tempter at the aforementioned Garden — who’ve become best pals after their eons on Earth. With the Antichrist at hand and the Apocalypse looming, they join forces to avert the end of the world and preserve those things they’re fondest of, including books, tea, good restaurants and sturdy Bentley automobiles.

A mixup of Satan-spawned babies has already thrown a wrinkle into God’s Big Plan (which may or may not be the same as God’s Ineffable Plan), further complicated by a boy’s simple love for his English hometown, along with a bumbling would-be witchfinder and the modern descendant of a prophetic witch.

Shot mainly in South Africa, Good Omens is a wild ride through the Old and New Testaments. Despite the Biblical underpinnings, it doesn’t ask to be taken seriously as history or theology and doesn’t set out to insult believers, but it still manages to be occasionally heartfelt and profound. At the heart of it are Arizaphale and Crowley, whose best-mates relationship has been labeled by at least one TV critic as a chaste gay one — but that is likely because representations of true, platonic friendship are so rare these days,

What I liked least were the young Antichrist’s (Sam Taylor Buck) pals — the sort of worldly wise, smart-alecky kids (especially Pepper, the very woke little girl) so common in fiction today. Fans of the book will have to tell me if they’re the same there.

Also starring are Adria Arjona, Jon Hamm (as a stuffy Archangel Gabriel), Nick Offerman, Jack Whitehall, Miranda Richardson, Michael McKean, Anna Maxwell Martin, Mireille Enos, Frances McDormand as the voice of God, and Benedict Cumberbatch voicing Satan.

Despite starring a Welshman (Sheen) and a Scotsman (Tennant), in its humor, structure, themes and setting, Good Omens is as English as crumpets, the Queen and Manchester United.

At the biannual TV Critics Press Association event in January, Gaiman said:

I was overjoyed to take probably the premier Scottish actor of his generation and the premier Welsh actor of his generation, and make them act English. But that is because the book is quintessentially English, as our Scottish director takes enormous joy in pointing out. It’s not a British book, it’s an English book; it is a very English sense of humor; it’s a peculiarly English sensibility.

So letting our angel and our demon be, in many ways, I think almost more English than they could be if they were English. They both sort of generate a kind of P. G. Wodehousian Englishness that almost doesn’t exist in reality.

While elements were added into Starz’s TV version of Gaiman’s American Gods that seemed intended specifically to irritate Christians (Jesus wasn’t an active character in the book, but several versions of Him were in the show), near as I can tell from those who love Good Omens, this is a pretty faithful adaptation (Gaiman himself was the showrunner). Some things had to be trimmed, such as this bit, as recounted in the review at Ars Technica:

But true book fans will lament the absence of the four British bikers who run into the Four Horsemen (er, Bikers) of the Apocalypse—the original Hell’s Angels—in a pub and decide to ride with them. In the book, War, Famine, Pollution (who took over when Pestilence retired, “muttering something about penicillin”), and Death are joined by Pigbog (aka Really Cool People), Greaser (aka Cruelty to Animals), Big Ted (aka Grievous Bodily Harm), and Skuzz (aka Embarrassing Personal Problems, before changing to Things Not Working Properly Even After You’ve Given Them a Good Thumping But Secretly No Alcohol Lager). It’s already a sprawling cast of characters, so I get why Gaiman et al. chose to leave them out of the TV adaptation. But they are missed.

Gaiman was raised Jewish, but he also has family ties to Scientology (but is quite adamant about not being a Scientologist himself). In an interview about American Gods with Harriett Gilbert, he said “I’m not agnostic, I’m a possibilist.”

After having read several interviews with Gaiman, hearing him speak at TCA and watching his MasterClass on the Art of Storytelling (highly recommended, BTW), my guess is that, while he may not be an outright believer, he’s what I call a noncombatant — meaning, he’s not out to intentionally denigrate or attack believers. He just wants to tell a good story, and it so happens that many of those stories have a decidedly spiritual twist.

(Incidentally, Jesus does make a brief appearance in Good Omens. Aziraphale doesn’t revere Him as God — as I said, this isn’t be taken seriously as Christian theology — but it’s not a negative or disrespectful portrayal.)

Being a writer of fiction myself, I hesitate to draw conclusions on why people tell the kinds of stories they do, unless there’s an obvious sociopolitical agenda — and Gaiman doesn’t seem to have one of those.

Approached with a sense of whimsy, Good Omens is good fun.

FYI, there is some rough language and sexual innuendo, but no overt sex scenes, and most of the violence has a fantastical character.

Images: Amazon Prime

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About Kate O'Hare
Based in Los Angeles, Kate O'Hare is a recovering entertainment journalist, social-media manager for Catholic production company Family Theater Productions and a screenwriter. You can read more about the author here.

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