The End Times, Served With a Cup of Tea
The six-episode Amazon Prime Video miniseries Good Omens features the most orderly, agreeable end of the world imaginable. Sure, The Kraken rises from the sea to the horror of whalers. But The Kraken is just a little cranky from a long nap and his rise saves some whales; who doesn’t want that?
Yes, the Four Horsemen (here a Nike-worthy bid for inclusivity that includes two women, an Asian “Pollution” a black “Famine” and, huh?, Brian Cox as “Death”) have resurfaced on Earth. But they probably tip well at the diner where they first gather together, and their motorcycles are neatly color-coordinated.
The Antichrist, an 11-year-old named Adam Young (Sam Taylor Buck), exhibits flashes of anger, but mostly he’s just a sweet kid who loves his dog/Hellhound and adores pirates, aliens, and hanging out in the woods with his best friends.
As adapted from the 1990 novel from fantasy rockstar Neil Gaiman and Discworld author Terry Pratchett, the 11 years and one week leading to the apocalypse never reads as more than a massive administrative error behind the boss’s back. It’s scary, but that’s the inevitable consequence of putting clueless bureaucrats in charge of things for 6,000+ years.
Here Come The End Times
The plot, simply: an angel named Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and a serpenty demon named Crowley (David Tennant) go from frenemies in the Garden of Eden to genuine friends by the time the present-day apocalypse arrives. They like Earth and its inhabitants too much to let the scheduled End Times to occur, so they conspire to try to stop Armageddon, with lots of complications, prophecies, and a switched-at-birth baby scheme along the way.
It’s a funny idea from a very funny book that Gaiman decided to adapt himself, writing all six of the TV episodes after Pratchett’s 2015 death. Gaiman has said in interviews that Pratchett was foremost on his mind as he made decisions as showrunner for the miniseries, giving him motivation to push harder on creative decisions than he might have otherwise.
It shows. While fans of the book will quibble with lines omitted and some of the casting choices, such as Frances McDormand as Narrator and God, Good Omens is tremendously generous. With Amazon’s deep pockets, the production quality goes above and beyond, with a big cast, convincing locations, and lots of animation and visual asides that incorporate jokes and footnotes from the book. What feels in the novel like a series of overly plotted Douglas Adams-style riffs on God, the Universe and Everything, becomes visually expansive on screen with surprisingly good special effects. It’s not enough to mention, in passing, that Atlantis has risen. Good Omens shows the city, and it’s glorious.
It’s All A Bit Silly, Really
The tone is dry comedy, never really scary. When death happens, it’s cartoony-gross. When thousands die from the Antichrist’s ascension, it’s off screen and easily reversible. The demons, even Satan Himself, are a notch below Harry Potter villains. They bumble and miscalculate, they meet icky ends from holy water.
Good Omens benefits from exquisite performances from Sheen and Tennant, who sell not only their disparate personalities (fussy angel, Mick Jagger swagger demon, respectively), but a very warm, friendship/bromance/subtexted actual romance that only deepens as the series goes on.
That relationship and the central performances work so well that all the bother about seas of fire and demon armies takes a backseat. There’s a group of kid characters led by Adam trying to save the world, the aforementioned Horsemen, a very silly witch-hunting Scotsman played by Michael McKean, a modern-day occultist, and her prophesized boyfriend. All these very nice performances just never dazzle next to the much-more-interesting ones from Sheen and Tennant.
Hamm in a Sweatsuit
And then there’s the matter of Jon Hamm, added to the story as the angel Gabriel, who Gaiman and Pratchett mentioned only once in passing in the original novel. Gabriel is there to ride Aziraphale’s ass about sticking to the script about the apocalypse. Heaven, it turns out, wants the end of the world to happen as much as Satan’s crew. “We can fight and we can win,” Gabriel assures Aziraphale in his best Don Draper tone. “But there doesn’t have to be a war,” Aziraphale counters. “Of course there does, otherwise how would we win it? Hmm?”
The Gabriel character, who shows up a few too many times, but once in a snug jogging suit (you’re welcome, viewers!), is an example of Gaiman enhancing the material by giving it more context. This plays out most in the third episode, which includes a nearly 30-minute recounting of Aziraphale and Crowley’s friendship through history. It’s a whole chunk that’s only hinted at in the novel. Here, it has room to play out as rich, enjoyable character development, placing the pause button on the rest of the overcomplicated plot threads.
It makes for an overall enjoyable viewing experiences, six hours of very pleasant, visually striking, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny TV, with the occasional loose thread or evidence of a long-in-gestation project.
A Throwback to the Simple 1990s
There’s barely a cell phone, tablet or TV screen in sight through the entire production, which made sense in 1990 when the novel came out, but plays as odd in a story set in the present day. And a very funny, very ‘80s joke in the book about how any cassette tape left in a car automatically transforms into “Queen’s Greatest Hits” never surfaces; instead, every time Crowley drives his Bentley around, it’s to a different plot-appropriate Queen tune with no explanation. Queen also contributes a version of the theme song. Therefore, Good Omens has the weird distinction of probably containing more Queen music than the biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.
If Good Omens doesn’t quite dazzle with pyrotechnics toward the finish line, that’s of a piece with the book, which felt anticlimactic. Here, Gaiman has again enhanced the source material with a conclusion that feels warmer and more tidy, a fantasy balm for our darker reality that nods toward a bloodier future, while assuring that we’re OK for now if we just take care of one another and the world.
Good Omens reflects a throwback sense that even in the chaos of the End Times, order will be restored. Its cast of characters who are mindful and respectful, even when they are literally about to kill each other. All the politeness seems a little out-of-step with our current climate. It’s a quaint callback to the era of CDs, when real Perestroika seemed possible, and people still enjoyed the pleasures of the written word on paper.
It’s a nice, comforting place to visit, actually.
A soothing cup of very English, very creamy TV tea.