With Season 2 of ‘Good Omens,’ we wonder if Neil Gaiman’s worldview may have run its course
Neil Gaiman is the man who made comic books cool, to the extent such a thing is possible. When The Sandman, once famous as a fundamentally unfilmable story, came to Netflix last year, it seemed to be a triumph for streaming platforms to film whatever supposedly unfilmable story they wanted to. Of course, just because you do something doesn’t mean you should, and as The Sandman halts filming for the second season thanks to the Hollywood strike, instead we have to contend with another Neil Gaiman joint in its own second season that begs a lot of questions about just how relevant his work really is these days–Good Omens.
On paper, Sandman and Good Omens don’t really have a lot in common. The source material for the first is a graphic novel, the second a prose novel that Gaiman co-wrote with Terry Pratchett. Sandman imagines an epic world featuring the personifications of the forces of nature, most notably Dream. Good Omens is a more light-hearted, silly setting, starring Michael Sheen as the angel Aziraphale and David Tennant as the demon Crowley, who in the first season sabotage the end of days due to their love of human comforts over dedication to their divine missions.
What the two stories do have in common, though, and what’s really Neil Gaiman’s hallmark at this point, is the oddly mundane, mostly petty office style setting depicting the lives of supernatural entities. In the early nineties this kind of interpretation of gods and mythology was genuinely innovative. We live in a very different media landscape now. When Richard Donner made the first Superman movie, they promised us that he would make us believe a man could fly. Now as James Gunn seeks to reinvent Superman yet again, they’re telling us we can believe in a Green Lantern who’s kind of a jerk. Neil Gaiman isn’t responsible for all of this, of course, and it would be easier to look on his work with fondness if so much of the media we see today wasn’t every supernatural idea stretched to its single most preposterously extreme mainstream.
So it is that as Good Omens opens its second season, we see that Aziraphale and Crowley have faced no apparent consequences whatsoever for their meddling in God’s divine plan for the universe. Bizarrely, neither heaven nor hell as bureaucratic institutions even seem to care very much about either of them. They become an issue when the amnesiac archangel Gabriel shows up naked at Aziraphale’s bookstore, but as incredibly interesting a plot hook as that might sound, the show does surprisingly little with it. There’s a few ominous clues here or there, mostly thanks to Jon Hamm, somewhat ironically, not hamming his scenes up at all and playing Gabriel as a sincere nice guy who’s repressing the knowledge of some unfathomable horror yet to come. But good luck even guessing what that might be–Good Omens doesn’t engage enough with its own mystery to give any real clues.
What exactly is Good Omens about? Well, mostly it’s just historical vignettes about Aziraphale and Crowley through major events such as the Big Bang, the Book of Job, and The Blitz. Time and again, Good Omens does its best to suck every bit of wonder and mystery out of these events. The Big Bang is just a backdrop for petty bickering. The Book of Job is no longer a parable about the meaning of faith, but a situation comedy about how wacky it is that God said it was OK to murder Job’s kids. The story about The Blitz has no gloom or despair, despite the promise of Nazi zombies, but has its own conflict centered entirely around the successful performance of a magic trick.
There are non illusions about what target audience Good Omens is aiming for–people who just enjoy Michael Sheen and David Tennant’s amusing chemistry. Yet the greater spiritual emptiness of Good Omens calls oddly stark attention to how this is just what the Bible is now. It’s a book of goofy stories. Where angels and demons once defied human comprehension and were signs of humanity’s limited vantage point of the universe, now, Aziraphale is a kindly landlord who listens to vintage records. Crowley drives a really cool car. They’re human in every meaningful way save for their ability to perform miracles, which the show basically defines as generic superpowers.
Good Omens can’t even claim this is because Aziraphale and Crowley are unique divine entities, since as far as we can tell all the other angels and demons are just different, more annoying versions of basic human personalities. In one story, an antagonistic demon schemes to capture proof of Aziraphale and Crowley’s illegal, unsanctioned friendship. Is this demon upset that Crowley obviously doesn’t place any value on Hell’s divine mission? Certainly not- he’s just scheming for a promotion.
It’s odd to think about the extent Neil Gaiman’s name has become synonymous with the idea of imagination because it’s hard to think of less creative ideas than this. Superheroes are the obvious point of comparison. Ironically enough, Sandman achieved much of the reputation it did because of the awkward restrictions Neil Gaiman had to labor under as the comic was technically a DC project, and the quest of Morpheus to restore his power had him run into characters like the Martian Manhunter and Constantine, and incidentally have to explain who all the past DC versions of Sandman were and how they related to Morpheus. Probably the best use of this element was a story where Death helps a version of Metamorpho commit suicide, since he clearly doesn’t find fulfillment in his life as an immortal elemental shapeshifter.
But Good Omens can’t even claim to live up to that kind of comic-book legacy. Its angels are aloof and oblivious. They hang out in a giant empty office space. The demons work somewhere more crowded. Neither group seems to care about their work all that much, or even see it as anything other than what they’re supposed to do because they’ve always done it. Aziraphale and Crowley have conquered this emptiness mostly by engaging in consumer culture. While Good Omens intimates that their experience with human culture is vast, the story’s hard references to the bits of it they consider to be important runs the gamut from Jane Austen to Doctor Who.
It’s a bit sad to think that this is what England has come to as a culture. Centuries of conquest and imperium are now such faint memories that the story rather bafflingly places American GIs in London during the Blitz. Good Omens is just so gosh-darned whimsical, and that wouldn’t be offensive, except that nearly all pop culture now is whimsical. We’re at the point where people know Gaiman’s bowdlerizations of epic religious concepts better than the actual concepts themselves
Good Omens is probably exactly what its core target audience is hoping for. Honestly, the vignette structure that the second season (and probably the third) is going for works a lot better than the first season, if only because the stories have to try to stand on their own instead of being an extended riff on the Book of Revelations. But there is shockingly little of substance here relative to the strength of Gaiman’s reputation, and intentional irreverence is no excuse for the incredible shallowness and vapidity of a story based on the literal founding document of Western civilization.