Translating stories from page to screen can be a bit of a gamble. After all, for every critical darling that gets released like SyFy’s The Magicians or Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, there’d be a flop along the lines of Iron Fist and The Legend of Earthsea to counter it. Thankfully, Amazon Prime and the BBC’s Good Omens is more of the former.
A clever, irreverent and meta-drenched adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s 1990 novel, Good Omens tells the story of an unlikely pair of friends — an angel named Aziraphale, and a demon named Crowley — who, having grown accustomed to the delights of the mortal plane during the course of their 6,000-year-old friendship, soon find themselves embarking on a search for the Antichrist before he comes of age and ushers in the end of the world.
What follows is an exercise in unfettered storytelling: we see the unlikely duo as they scramble to postpone doomsday; we see a modern-day witch attempting to decipher a book of predictions left by a distant ancestor; we travel back in time; we get introduced to a witchfinder and his new, unassuming, assistant; we get treated to Biblical history lessons; we get an inside look at how Heaven and Hell are run; we meet the Horsemen of the Apocalypse; we hear the Voice of God; And we get treated to a smattering of hits from Queen’s extensive discography.
A labor of love in every sense, Good Omens languished for years in development hell after its publication, with Gaiman only agreeing to jumpstart its production after he received a letter from his late writing partner Terry Pratchett, urging him to finish the adaptation.
And thank the heavens he did exactly that.
At the risk of sounding overdramatic, Good Omens — best described as Dogma meets Monty Python — is one hell of a show, thanks mainly to its excellent casting: Michael Sheen brings a well-mannered and sweet, as well as neurotic and fussy, air to Aziraphale, with his take on the angel acting like the perfect foil to David Tennant’s scene-stealing and flamboyant portrayal of the demon Crowley. Looking like a cross between a rock star and a runway model, Tennant’s Crowley straight up demands attention from the audience: black-clad, arresting, and glamorous. The two work perfectly together, their beautiful on-screen dynamic echoing other equally iconic TV and film pairings: Sherlock and Watson, Professor Xavier and Magneto. You get my point.
The other cast members are also quite the delight: Jon Hamm plays the part of the smarmy Heavenly head honcho Archangel Gabriel with gusto, Michael McKean brings just the right amount of rapid-fire kookiness to the fanatical witchfinder Shadwell, while Frances McDormand brings a certain lightness, coupled with stern authority, in her turn as the voice of God.
But brilliant actors a good show do not make, and it must be said that Good Omens also owes a lot to the technical genius of its director, Douglas Mackinnon and his creative partnership with the book’s original co-author Neil Gaiman, who functions as the show’s executive producer and writer.
Interspersing straightforward, expository shots with over-the-top scenes delving into the cartoonish and whimsical, Mackinnon’s brand of visual storytelling blended well with Gaiman’s treatment of the script, giving the gorgeously-shot series a healthy dose of visual panache coupled with an extra side of camp, and just the right amount of darkness.
The show’s production is nothing short of inspired as well, with its sets and locations clear testaments to Gaiman and company’s dedication to thorough and well-researched world building: Good Omens’ take on Heaven looks extremely sterile and joyless, while its version of Hell looks like a perpetually dark, dank, and damp back office. The leads’ specific homes are particularly impressive as well, with Aziraphale’s bookshop and Crowley’s sleek penthouse and prized Bentley looking like actual, individual characters themselves.
Despite being a pretty successful adaptation for the most part, some points feel off, with one glaring example being its failure to actually develop some of its characters, most notably the young Antichrist Adam Young and his ragtag group of friends, as well as the terribly underutilized Four Horsemen (or is it Bikers?) of The Apocalypse. Adria Arjona’s Anathema Device feels lost as well, with her entire subplot involving prophecies never really going anywhere within the larger narrative’s context.
For all its missteps though, Good Omens plays out quite solidly, with its entire story as fresh and as engaging as ever. Absurdist in its tone, and biting in its employment of sarcasm and religious and political satire, Good Omens is a near-perfect adaptation of its source material (a huge chunk of its dialogue lifted directly from the original text’s pages) save for the necessary excision of several of the book’s outdated, if not altogether problematic, plot points.
An ambitious and long-awaited endeavor, Good Omens succeeds not just because of its technical merits, but also because it is unapologetically generous, not to mention startlingly realistic, when it comes to dishing out questions related to faith, fate, and relationships. Not only that, the way it chooses to tell its narrative — all its short lulls and hiccups notwithstanding — also allows its viewers to become more than just idle witnesses to the troubles its supernatural protagonists face.
Simply put, Good Omens is an instant classic that ultimately, deserves to be seen.
Good Omens is now streaming on Amazon Prime.