Good Omens is one of those books you either love or haven’t read yet. The union of the late Terry Pratchett at his professional peak and a then-little-known Neil Gaiman, the hilarious fantasy novel became an instant cult favorite after hitting shelves in 1990. Ever since, its fans have clamored for a screen adaptation of the lighthearted, wry story about an angel and a demon trying to avert a haywire apocalypse.
The book has come close several times to being turned into a movie over the three decades since Good Omens’ publication. In 2002, Terry Gilliam attempted to make one with Johnny Depp and Robin Williams in the lead roles — as the demon, Crowley, and the angel, Aziraphale, respectively — only to be thwarted by post-9/11 cultural anxieties about the end of the world. Gilliam continued to try unsuccessfully to adapt his version, and the book was also made into a BBC radio drama in 2015.
Now, at long last, Amazon has brought us a proper screen adaptation of Good Omens. Amazon’s version is not a film, but a six-hour long miniseries, with a screenplay by Gaiman and starring David Tennant as Crowley and Michael Sheen as Aziraphale. Directed by veteran Doctor Who director Douglas Mackinnon, it’s a funny, warm treat that fans of the book will find familiar and endearing, from the strong ensemble cast — Michael Sheen in particular shines as the fusty, fastidious angel — to the slightly kitschy production design, which flits between a litany of pleasantly clichéd English aesthetics, from P.G. Wodehouse to Harry Potter.
The loving craft and extended runtime aside, though, the miniseries ultimately feels less substantive than I had hoped. But if it also carries a few of the books’ flaws with it, such as a few pancake-flat characters and stagnant bits of pacing here and there — well, like Aziraphale, we’re good at forgiving small sins.
Good Omens is a story of best friends trying to save the world (and each other)
Good Omens features a large ensemble cast of angels, demons, and humans all squabbling over the end of the world. At the center of the hubbub are Crowley and Aziraphale, a demon and an angel who’ve been friends for millennia, and who have resided on earth so long that they’ve both become deeply fond of it. They’ve also become increasingly jaded with their respective sides of the celestial war between heaven and hell; so when they’re both tasked with aiding the coming of the apocalypse, they inevitably decide to work together to stop it instead.
The story begins, more or less, when Crowley — a demon of some importance, despite his ambivalence about the job — delivers the Antichrist to the wrong pair of parents due to a farcical mixup. They wind up raising the boy, who they name Adam (Sam Taylor Buck), in a bucolic English village, while the forces of Satan mistakenly concentrate all their diabolical energy on grooming a powerful politician’s son instead. So instead of the fate of the world resting on the shoulders of a powerful world leader, it resides with the deceptively cherubic Adam, who’s thus far lived a totally normal life, doing nothing more diabolical than stealing apples and playing with an innocent group of neighborhood kids, called “the Them.”
Over the course of the miniseries, Adam reaches his 11th birthday and rapidly becomes aware of his power — as well as the misery of human existence. The question of whether Adam will ultimately succumb to his world-destroying temptations is never truly a matter of suspense; after all, his friends aren’t super into the idea of him wiping out the planet, and he also has a really cute hellhound who helps temper his more genocidal impulses. But whether heaven and hell will allow anyone to interfere with the apocalypse, and whether Crowley and Aziraphale will escape the combat unscathed, is a bit more uncertain.
As the black-clad, snake-eyed, Bentley-driving Crowley, David Tennant should own the show — but his performance is a bit erratic, and the weird litany of bad hairpieces and occasional strange CGI he’s dealt doesn’t help. We’re never quite sure if Crowley is supposed to be legitimately cool or if he simply believes he’s a badass. By contrast, Michael Sheen is near-perfect as the bookish, overeager, and gleefully queer Aziraphale. But if anything, he’s too good, in the holy sense: we never really get a glimpse of the Aziraphale that Crowley fondly describes as being a bit of a bastard.
When they’re together, however, Tennant and Sheen’s chemistry shines, and the series twirls around their transition from an all-too-human complacence to a growing horror over the coming apocalypse — and the possible end of their long, star-crossed relationship.
This production will carry Good Omens fans along. For newcomers, it lags.
Gaiman and Pratchett largely wrote themselves into the characters of Crowley and Aziraphale, respectively, and it’s the duo’s affectionate bickering and unlikely camaraderie that dominate the show as it does the book — so much so that it’s easy to forget what a large cast the story actually contains.
That’s both a blessing and a curse for Amazon’s Good Omens, which is at its best whenever Aziraphale and Crowley share the screen, but which tends to feel aimless whenever the narrative switches to focus on the other cast members: the meddling demons, the officious angel Gabriel (Jon Hamm in purple contacts), a prophetic witch and her descendent, Anathema Device (Adria Arjona). Oh, and the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
The snooziest of them all is a zealous “witchfinder” named Shadwell (Michael McKean) and his psychic neighbor, Madam Tracy (Miranda Richardson). Even when acted to the hilt, these scenes slow the series to a snail’s crawl, and it’s tempting to drag the streaming slider to the right.
The failure of the show to successfully make these scenes feel buoyant lies in the writing rather than the acting, because for the most part, the show is superbly cast and well-acted. But the adaptation, as faithfully rendered by Gaiman, frequently highlights the novel’s biggest flaw: When it’s not following around its quippy, homoerotic pair of celestial beings, the story fizzles out.
Most of Good Omens’ magic does come from the truly collaborative joy emanating from Pratchett and Gaiman, both authors who like to shift between ebullient whimsy and profound rumination on the cosmos. While other screen adaptations of Gaiman’s works have been hit-or-miss (Coraline, Stardust), Good Omens maintains a sunny, Pratchett-like disposition that keeps it from feeling too self-important, which Gaiman’s works unfortunately tend to do when adapted. It helps that Gaiman himself not only writes but is executive producer on the show, keeping the show from falling beneath its own weight.
With Gaiman at the helm, and with an ample amount of time to do the book’s nuances justice, Good Omens succeeds much better than any recent Gaiman (or Pratchett) adaptation in memory. But we’re still ultimately left with a screenplay that faithfully emphasizes Good Omens’ plot rather than its profundities or literary flourishes. There’s no attempt, for example, to recreate the book’s famous footnotes, though the addition of Frances McDormand as the voice of God is a nice, if largely wasted, touch.
Unfortunately, most of the cast ultimately feels largely wasted, simply because the story doesn’t know what to do with them. The patience we have as readers for the parts of the book where Crowley and Aziraphale aren’t happily bantering away doesn’t yield the same sort of rewards when stripped of their literary pleasures, and the ending may feel abrupt and largely anticlimactic to many newcomers.
For everyone else, however, there’ll be plenty of delight in watching the novel come to life at last. And for viewers who figure out quickly that the fun of Good Omens is in watching the drama around the world ending, rather than fussing too much over the actual end of the world, this is a series that won’t disappoint.