UK TV review: Good Omens
Ivan Radford | On 15, Jan 2020
Good Omens airs on BBC Two at 9pm on Wednesdays. This is a spoiler-free review.
“You can’t second-guess ineffability, I always say,” smiles Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) wistfully in Good Omens, and the same is perhaps true of the original novel. Published in 1990, and written by Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett, the fantasy comedy about the end of the world is one of the funniest, smartest and most inventive books ever put to paper. It bursts with imagination, grapples with theological questions and generally has a jolly good time doing so. The result is a winding, meandering, complex text (a book where even the in-jokes have in-jokes) and has long been considered unfilmable. Until now, that is. Because Amazon Prime Video and the BBC have teamed up to adapt it for the screen – and, by some kind of divine intervention, the story is not only filmable, but also damn fun.
The six-part series follows the events leading up to the apocalypse, as foretold by Agnes Nutter in her book, The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter – the only collection of prophecies to prove entirely correct. The only problem? The book was written in the 17th century and just one copy survived, which is kept under lock and key in a Soho bookshop by its owner, one Aziraphale. The only other problem? The apocalypse is triggered by the coming-of-age of the antichrist… and someone’s misplaced him. Namely, Crowley (David Tennant), a demon tasked with wreaking havoc on Earth.
The pair have crossed paths for thousands of years. Both on opposite sides of the great war, they soon realise that there’s little point in waging their part, as they only cancel each other out anyway – after all, both parties want the apocalypse to unfold, so why bother stopping it? Except, of course, by spending centuries hanging out instead, they’ve both gotten used to normal life, and well, they rather like it. And so the stage is set for a fight against the inevitable, a battle fought with deadly forces not of the world, dastardly hell hounds and an ancient cloister of Satanic nuns (the Chattering Order of St. Beryl) – plus administrative errors, luck of the devil, and a quirky twist of fate.
It’s an ambitious, absurd universe and Gaiman, who serves as showrunner, has the ideal partner in director Douglas Mackinnon to bring it to life. A Doctor Who veteran, Mackinnon brings just the right balance of expansive world-building and faintly retro special effects to the table – think Harry Potter more than Stranger Things, and all the better for it. Heaven becomes a gleaming corporate HQ with a vaguely soulless air, while Hell is like the world’s worst lobby for a dingy office, neither of them able to compare with the colourful chaos and charming silliness that we witness on terra firma.
The cast are clearly enjoying the unusual antics, from Josie Lawrence as the unapologetic Agnes to Adria Arjona as Anathema, her inquisitive last descendant, who bumps into Adam (Sam Taylor Buck), the possibly soon-to-be antichrist. Daniel Mays is wonderful as Adam’s unsuspecting father, a softly-spoken counterpart to Nick Offerman’s US Ambassador, whose child, Warlock, was meant to be swapped with Adam (a witty nod to The Omen). That swap, though, goes awry, something that’s explained to us by Frances McDormand – who plays the voice of God with a gleefully knowing, confidently deadpan tone. (“Most books on witchcraft will tell you that witches work naked,” she observes, in one of the show’s choicest lines. “This is because most books on witchcraft are written by men.”)
It takes a while for this web of people, and for the omniscient narration, to settle into a coherent whole, but that’s primarily because Gaiman is working so hard to keep the show close to the book – much of the dialogue, for example, is taken word-for-word from the page. When that exposition juggling act syncs up with the gorgeously oddball characters, Good Omens really sparks to life: Jon Hamm’s Gabriel is a particular joy, as he sinks his perfectly white teeth into a role that’s been beefed up for the programme, claiming to outsmart humans with zero subtlety and a hilariously smug grin. He brings some needed pressure and tension to Aziraphale’s role – it’s telling that Crowley’s bosses are less memorable, although Anna Maxwell Martin has a lot of fun as Beelzebub. Mireille Enos’ War and Yusuf Gatewood’s Famine, two of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, are also wonderfully callous about ending life as know it, even if Brian Cox’s Death doesn’t quite land his deadpan jokes through his black motorcycle helmet.
The finale wavers from the book to fit its televisual structure, and the voiceover gets increasingly relied upon as events become more complex events. But the core essence of the story is the same, as it explores the notion of not being able to choose where you came from but being able to choose which plan you follow and where you ultimately go – even if that’s into someone else’s body.
While the messier parts of the plot don’t always fit smoothly on screen, the show’s peaks reach hugely enjoyable heights. It’s no coincidence that a prime example is Episode 3, which starts with a sequence dedicated entirely to Crowley and Aziraphale. Because at its heart, Good Omens is a charming story about an unlikely friendship. Michael Sheen and David Tennant are perfectly cast, from Sheen’s gentle, excitable, naive positivity to Tennant’s wilier, growling presence – traits echoed brilliantly by Aziraphale’s cosy bookshop and Crowley’s 1926 Bentley, which constantly blares songs by Queen (continuing one of the book’s best running jokes).
Over centuries, we see them pop up as Arthurian knights, fans of Shakespeare (The Bard himself is played wonderfully by Reece Shearsmith), lovers of crepes (even during the French Revolution), and, in one standout scene, spies during World War II (when they collide with two sinister book dealers, played by Steve Pemberton and Mark Gatiss). Throughout, they tease out the duality of their double act, as Crowley’s demon can perform miraculous deeds and Aziraphale’s messenger can be tempted with food or the thought of not listening to The Sound of Music for eternity. The gradual dismantling of their duties weaves a deceptively complex study of moral absolutism that makes for rich viewing, but Good Omens’ remarkable achievement is to wrap that up in the lightest, silliest television imaginable. It doesn’t always manage it flawlessly, and it’s certainly best when Crowley and Aziraphale are on screen, but this comedy is bursting with ideas, packed with giggles, accompanied by some beautiful opening credits, and never less than entertaining. Fans of the book may be occasionally frustrated but will find much to treasure – including a surprising Jack Whitehall as the likeable, naive witchfinder Newton Pulsifer – while those who have never read it will be tempted to pick up a copy. It’s hard to think of a better tribute to Terry Pratchett than that. Ineffable, some might say.
Good Omens: Season 1 is available on BBC iPlayer following its broadcast every Wednesday. It is also available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.