This review contains spoilers.
1.1 In The Beginning…
Miracles do happen, if only you wait long enough. Good Omens, a comic fantasy novel co-written by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, was published 30 years ago. After three decades and multiple thwarted attempts to adapt it for the screen, the TV version is finally here, and it buzzes with the book’s playful humour and British personality.
So it should, because this Amazon series hasn’t been adapted by just anybody. It was written and executive-produced by Neil Gaiman, and directed by Doctor Who, Sherlock and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency’s Douglas Mackinnon. The result is a fine balance of sprightly, silly and macabre, and the best adaptation fans could have hoped for.
The clever decision making began with the casting of Michael Sheen and David Tennant as angel-demon double act Aziraphale and Crowley. Their centuries-old relationship is the backbone of Good Omens. Without the right pairing, this highly populated series might slump under its own weight. It doesn’t, because these two are our constant in the chaos, providing continuity and all the best lines.
Lines, crucially, that have lost none of their Pratchettian specificity. It may have an international budget thanks to Amazon and a global cast thanks to Neil Gaiman’s address book, but this feels beautifully British. Not theme-park British, but British in the imaginative, silly, comforting sense of Douglas Adams, Monty Python, the A40 at Denham and BBC Radio 4. There’s a Jeffrey Archer joke that won’t land in ninety nine per cent of the international territories the show’s been sold to, but it was kept in nonetheless (and got bellowing laughs at the London premiere). Good Omens isn’t blandly transatlantic, but bedded in a comedy tradition shaped in no small part by Terry Pratchett himself.
Pratchett’s presence is felt in more ways than one. His black fedora and scarf hang from the hat stand in a bookshop set as a fond tribute. The fondest tribute paid to the author though, is that Good Omens hasn’t been buggered up in translation. The story has been kept just as eccentric and the silliness just as silly.
After a Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy-style opening that introduces the voice of Frances McDormand as God, episode one begins at the beginning: a desert, the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, a serpent and an apple. Demon Crawley (the ‘o’ came in a centuries-later rebrand) bats around big philosophical ideas in a characteristically offhand way. Is God benevolent? What’s the difference between good and evil? Is blind adherence to a divine plan actually, you know, a good idea?
It’s kept light and humorous, hiding its brain under enjoyable clowning. Crowley’s nanny drag act and Aziraphale’s yokel gardener disguises are pure foolishness and lots of fun. It’s all a lot of fun. Tennant’s demon is louche, tight of both jaw and trouser, snake-eyed and snake-hipped. Sheen’s angel is endearing and very funny, a kind of Church of England vicar forever in the act of reaching for a second slice of Bakewell Tart from the WI table. Together, they’re a delight, as are the rest of this sprawling cast.
Try to count the characters in just episode one and you’ll run out of fingers before getting halfway there. Hastur and Ligur. The Satanic nuns of the Chattering Order of St Beryl. Archangel Gabriel. The ambassadorial family. The Youngs. The denizens of hell. The Them. Almost all played by the kind of actor who prompts a happy grunt of recognition when you see their face. Jon Hamm, Nick Offerman, Nina Sosanya (comic brilliance in the winking scene) … ‘no character left behind’ must have been the casting motto. Big names play tiny parts across all six episodes, proof of this project’s draw.
The result is a crowded tapestry, a Bosch painting’s worth of incident and invention. It’s weird and whimsical and idiosyncratic, and everything the book is loved for. Welcome to the end times, it’s been worth the wait.