Good Omens Review
Based on Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaimen’s 1997 novel, Good Omens (once dubbed the unfilmable novel) has been adapted for screen by Gaiman, after Pratchett’s death in 2015. Anyone familiar with either of their works will feel right at home from the off - the TV series retains the quirky humour and subversions of well-worn tales that both of their novels often explore. Amongst the witty one-liners and excellent casting, however, the series does fall prey to many of the issues which come with adapting the written word for screen - an issue made worse with two authors to contend with.
Amazon’s adaptation draws big name stars; Michael Sheen and David Tennant are in the driving seat as Aziraphale (an Angel) and Crowley (a Demon) who must work together to prevent the rise of the antichrist, and consequently the war to end all wars. Both have watched over humanity since the dawn of time, living in human forms and enjoying the commodities of everyday human life (books for Aziraphale and alcohol and fast cars for Crowley). They are content in their current existence – the emergence of the antichrist threatens all that they hold dear. In order to avoid worldwide annihilation, the two agree to work together to keep the child just balanced enough between good and evil that the child won’t cause a war between heaven and hell.
Only, there’s a hiccup. In a slight of hand sequence to rival Penn and Teller, the antichrist is switched out for a recently born son of a British couple who live in the quaint village of Tadfield. Parents unaware that they are taking home the antichrist, Crowley and Aziraphale unaware that they are watching over the wrong child entirely – well, you can see the mess already. In addition to the dynamic duo, Good Omens features newcomer Sam Taylor Buck as Adam Young, the antichrist, a burgeoning love story between a witch and a witch-finder’s ancestor (Adria Arjona and Jack Whitehall) and Miranda Richardson as the multi-talented neighbour of the crazed Shadwell (Michael McKeen performing the most questionable Scottish accent to have ever graced our screens). Jon Hamm also stars as the Archangel Gabriel - certainly one of the funniest appearances.
Sheen and Tennant make phenomenal companions – they have the chemistry of a couple married for 2000 years, which of course they basically have been. The dialogue they are presented with is sometimes clunky – often too on the nose to actually elicit a laugh – but as seasoned actors, they do the very best with what they are given. They are by far the most interesting aspect of the series (the Garden of Eden skit is one of the best show openers in recent history), but so much so that when they are not onscreen, the show doesn’t have the same captivating factor
Despite all of the inventive CGI, the comedic trappings and the utterly unique narrative, the word overkill springs to mind. One of the fatal flaws of Good Omens is it's constant need to over explain single minuscule narrative twist. As wonderful as it is to hear Frances McDormand as the voice of God, the narration rarely (if ever) tells the audience anything it doesn’t already know (or is about to discover) and usually serves the purpose of buying time between scenes. The pacing is slow anyway; six episodes feels a lot more like ten.
From the outset, MacKinnon and Gaiman can’t seem to decide which time period Good Omens is set in. We are given a multitude of different captioned dates and years as the series hurtles through history, but the main narrative is just loosely described as T-minus minutes-to-the-apocalypse. There are iPads and smartphones, but everyone in London wears a waistcoat, the streets of Soho are lined with twee red phone-boxes, and Adam’s adopted father brings his wife to hospital in an incredibly outdated car. We have face-timing, but the children are dressed like remnants from the past and talk like they are taking part in a BBC2 educational programme from the 1950’s.
I suspect that this uncertainty stems from the ‘anglophilia’ that Good Omens is so keen on pandering to. Referring to the M25 as a freeway, and listening to the children speaking in nothing but received pronunciation, made me realise that whilst the show may be a haven for fantastic British actors (a big hello to BBC regulars Daniel Mays, Nina Sosayna, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton), it is far more interested in appealing to American audiences than the home-grown crowd.
If the above doesn’t bother you, the reliance on deus-ex-machinas to solve every single problem might just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Without heading into spoiler territory, the show presents an imminent war between heaven and hell which, we are told, is a monumental event that no-one will be able to put a stop to if started. Yet, even when things are at the most dire, it never feels as if anyone is that worried. Changes of mind, simple semantics and utilising a prophecy book all serve as ways to keep the apocalypse at bay.
The real problem with prophecies is that (and this is a particular issue in Good Omens), scenarios begin to occur because a character has read that it will occur. The character of Anathema suffers severely from this: her insistence on literally doing everything by the (prophecy) book means she has no agency and therefore her character feels incredibly thin and devoid of any personality.
The lack of any discernible tension could also be due to the villains not seeming...well villainy enough. Anna Maxwell-Martin’s Beelzebub seems to have been fobbed off by the hair and make-up department (seriously - that wig?) and Hell is simply a gathering of various people with facial deformities (it’s 2019 - are we not past this lazy shorthand for evil yet?).
It isn’t all bad - Good Omens really does have some wonderful moments but sadly that is all that they are. Individual scenes are well put together, but the show seems to limp from moment to moment without a sense of actual direction or narrative. By episode three, the plot should be well on it’s journey, but instead half an hour of the episode is a breakdown of all of Aziraphale and Crowley’s memories together. It’s entertaining, but it does nothing to for the pacing of the series, which grinds to a standstill right before the climax in episode six.
Those who are already enamoured by the book will almost certainly fall in love with this iteration. Yet, if you are not already on-board, you may find it slightly lacking in more than a few areas. It’s a shame because Good Omens clearly had the potential to be the next great fantasy show but it fails to put forward a strong narrative, favouring instead a series of oddly connected moments which do little for the overall theme and tone of the show. Tennant and Sheen are gold, but the rest of it is sadly a combination of annoying side characters, irrelevant plot points and a group of pompous children whom I honestly wish had perished in the war to end all wars. Hound from hell Dog, on the other hand, can stay.