Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s 1990 novel Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch is a barnstorming and utterly charming endeavor which travels at a brisk pace thanks to the synergy between its two writers and their personalities that happens to mirror both its protagonists. Amazon Prime’s Good Omens makes so many right decisions in its production stages (cast, effects, tone etc.) that on paper it seems as though the show could become a piece of event television. However, whilst a few small problems hold the show back from reaching its full potential, it manages to maintain the majority of what made the novel itself so special – which is no mean feat in itself.
The main story within the show handles the relationship between the angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) – a lover of culture and a massive softie, and the demon Crowley (David Tennant) – the original serpent who tempted Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Both have lived on Earth, keen to seep away from the morose complexities of their respective kingdoms since the dawn of time, and over the course of history have built up a budding relationship despite their differences. When Crowley is instructed from Satan himself to bring about the apocalypse by replacing a newborn child with his spawn, Crowley and Aziraphale, having taken a liking to both each other and their new home amongst the humans, make a pact to ensure the child grows up to ignore the prophecy and instead be taught the ways of both good and evil. However due to a mix up with the birth and another baby is thrown into the mix, and the two find themselves having watched over an innocent child through its adolescence whilst the real spawn of Satan resides in the town of Tadworth, England, ready to accept his true role and bring forth the end of days and fulfill Heaven and Hell’s plan for all-out war.
If there’s one thing the synopsis for Good Omens doesn’t do justice, it’s tone. Rather then be awash with the doom and gloom of ‘end of days’ talk and demonology, the show flourishes everything with an easygoing nature thanks to the voices of both Pratchett and Gaiman. As sole showrunner due to Pratchett’s untimely death in 2015, Gaiman takes full writing credit for the episodes, and if you’re familiar with his work you’ll find the same mixture of large-scale fantasy inside small-world politics here. It’s also terrifically British. From Frances McDormand’s God’s opening narration we’re immediately aware of the show’s awfully polite and absurd nature; the comparisons between the work of Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) are astute – this is the kind of show you could see the cast of Monty Python inhabiting should it have been made thirty years prior. Of course, if it had we would have missed out on the pitch-perfect chemistry between David Tennant and Michael Sheen. The two compliment each other with the charismatic attitudes of friends hanging out for the sheer joy of it, though of course both are reluctant to admit so. Sheen typically disappears into the bumbling, book-obsessed Aziraphale; his mannerisms and short intakes of breath identifying his acute simultaneous politeness/frustration with the situation he’s placed. Tennant on the other hand revels in playing another larger-than-life character, and imbues Crowley with the swagger of a rock star and the social skills of a more-fluid Bill Nighy. It’s clear from the start that the two are having a whale of a time and the scenes between them (particularly an extended montage in episode three) are the most joyous across the entire series.
Elsewhere across the series (though generally kept between London and Tadworth), Anathema Device (Adria Arjona), the last descendent of ancient witch Agnes Nutter, uses her book of future predictions to attempt to stop the rise of Satan’s spawn with the aid of witchfinder descendant Newton Pulsifer (Jack Whitehall). Whilst the two are admirable as the show’s budding relationship as they come to grips with armageddon, their presence and purpose often feels undermined purely due to the strength of the central duo. This is a common problems Good Omens suffers from, and whilst it’s not the worst problem to have in the world, it makes sections of the show feel lacklustre in comparison. Likewise, side-characters Sergeant Shadwell (Michael McKean) and Madame Tracy (Miranda Richardson), two Londoners also ushered into the fight, feel underused and bland at times. Often I found myself wishing to go back to one of the show’s mythical characters, those who embody flamboyance by the tonne and highlight the show’s unique selling point.
Gaiman and director Douglas Mackinnon, aided by the wonderful David Arnold’s score, successfully manage to make the concepts of heaven and hell feel fresh and home-made. Heaven is a blisteringly-white neverending skyscraper floor (presumably still in London) whilst Hell occupies a never-ending series of dank basement corridors filled with vermin-ridden demons. Their blacked-out eyes glisten in the dark and many are stitched to creatures that sit atop their heads. Ned Dennehy’s Hasture in particular, occupies the show’s most lingering antagonist as a fellow demon who doubts Crowley’s commitment to the cause of Satan. The addition of the Archangel Gabriel, absent from the novel, is a most welcome addition too in the form of Jon Hamm who grimaces and peppers his scenes with a sharp conformity.
The production design of the show, whilst emulating the stitched-together tone of the novel, ushers in bombastic CGI and cinematography alongside a whimsical 2D title sequence that demands your attention. Creatures like the mythical Kraken and the absurd brief appearance of an alien spaceship coming down to Earth simply to express gratitude are the kind of quirks the show will be long known for. Ideas such as replacing ‘Pestilence’, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, with ‘Pollution’ due to Earth’s actions in an inspired creation – but it’s one of the ones that this six-episode miniseries sadly doesn’t have time to fully utilise. Whether it’s due to time or budgetary constraints, many of the fantastical elements outside of Aziraphale and Crowley are only briefly shown, instead replaced by yet more hit-and-miss dialogue between human occupants. Neil Gaiman has proven himself time and again to be a triumphant storyteller, but there’s an underlying sense that Pratchett’s eye for comedy, specifically of the surreal nature, is sorely missing here.
It’s this translation that becomes another increasingly noticeable problem as the show rushes towards its climax. Whilst nonsensical explanations and small minute details work to exasperate comedy in the form of prose, much of the time it simply comes across as clunky exposition when forced into a visual medium. Many of the show’s antagonists are dispatched by either talking or thinking them away, and in a show that features Tennant’s demon screaming erratically whilst zooming down the M25 motorway in a flame-ridden Bentley, it’s difficult not to feel short-changed when the likes of Satan himself are reduced to nothing thanks to the words of a child. The presentation of Prachett’s idea that Satan’s son actually likes humans so much he embodies them is such a brilliant idea that it’s a shame the end doesn’t justify such thinking. It’s the presentation in these moments that often dwindles their effect. Mackinnon’s quick camerawork doesn’t allow for much tension to be built over the course of the series, and this becomes apparent the further you get into the show, where the finale feels more like a whimper than an exuberant bang.
Good Omens triumphs in bringing the characters from the novel to life, and as a showcase for Tennant and Sheen it’s second to none. I can already see the two becoming idols on message boards and within the zeitgeist of the internet due to their nuanced relationship and personalities. It’s a pure joy to watch these characters interact with each other, but if a narrative is the strongest element you’re looking for within your afterlife fantasy fiction, you’d arguably still get more out of the pages within the book itself. And that’s something Aziraphale himself would probably agree on.