The stakes of Amazon’s Good Omens are probably the highest of any TV series, with the opposing forces of Heaven and Hell preparing to wage the war to end all wars—and life—here on Earth. But while that conflict does provide the broader framework for the six-part limited series (and the Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett fantasy-comedy novel it’s adapted from), Good Omens’ biggest thrill is found in the pitch-perfect pairing of David Tennant and Michael Sheen as a millennia-old odd couple who find themselves increasingly attached to our flawed selves—and each other.
Gaiman’s even more hands-on with this adaptation than he was the second season of Starz’s American Gods, writing all six episodes and working with series director Douglas Mackinnon to make TV’s latest foray into the great beyond worth the jaunt. Good Omens is an undeniably faithful adaptation of its source material, porting over stretches of text to serve as dialogue, often in the form of exposition (to its own detriment at times). The duo of Aziraphale (Sheen), a fussy but genial angel, and Crowley (Tennant), who’s hedonistic even by demon standards, is as irresistible on screen as on the page, whether they’re enjoying a 1921 bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape or figuring out whom to blame (or credit) for the Reign Of Terror. Their stories have been intertwined since the beginning of human history, the exact timing of which is hashed out by God herself (Frances McDormand) in the first moments of the premiere. Though their allegiances place them in direct opposition to each other, they’ve come to regard each other as kindred spirits, in part because they seem to be the only otherworldly beings who see the Earth has something other than a battlefield. Which is why they’re both dismayed when the doomsday clock officially starts to count down after the Antichrist is swapped with the offspring of a British couple (Daniel Mays and Sian Brooke). Soon, if all goes according to plan (either “great” or “ineffable”), their charming detente will have to end, and Aziraphale and Crowley will have to take up arms against each other.
But those increasingly dire straits don’t produce nearly as much tension as they ought to, given that, despite the bumbling of the Chattering Order Of St. Beryl, the Antichrist (played at age 11 by Sam Taylor Buck), is very much on Earth—albeit in the bucolic English countryside instead of the stately manor of a cloddish American ambassador (Nick Offerman)—and still poised to bring about the apocalypse. True, that’s kind of the nature of Good Omens’ source material, which is more concerned with theological discussions, commentary on the hypocrisy of certain organized religions, self-determination, and our inherent worth than it is humanity’s undoing. Good Omens soars when it focuses on the buddy comedy between Aziraphale and Crowley, who are tasked with keeping mortals on the straight and narrow and luring them away from it, respectively, neglect their duties, either by aiding the first couple cast out from Eden, or by partaking of the many wonderful things humans have created. As Crowley, Tennant affects a slithering strut that’s part rock star, part pied piper—it’s not hard to see why Aziraphale, let alone lesser beings, is ultimately so taken with his immortal enemy. Sheen’s Aziraphale, meanwhile, is fastidious, caring, and just a little self-centered, as even the best people are. Their relationship changes over the course of the show, as they influence each other to look beyond moral absolutism to see the many shades of gray in their existence as well as our own. But like any mismatched pair, they still butt heads over how to achieve their common goal of fending off the impending apocalypse, which is motivated as much by their desire to continue to eat crêpes and listen to Queen on Earth.
It’s when the series looks elsewhere for its drama and humor that it starts to falter. Buck’s Adam is cut from the same precocious cloth as many a TV tween, as are his pals Pepper (Amma Ris), Brian (Ilan Galkoff), and Wensleydale (Alfie Taylor). Together, the friends make up Them, a mischievous band of kids who start off wanting nothing more than to enjoy the summer, play some games, and maybe take in a shapeshifting dog, who’s much more capable than most of the Devil’s agents as depicted herein. But as war becomes more imminent, Adam begins to tap into his powers, thereby drawing another, much less personable band of allies to him: the Four Horsemen, played by Mirelle Enos (War), Yusuf Gatewood (Famine), Lourdes Faberes (Pollution, who took over for Pestilence once penicillin was developed), and last but not least, Brian Cox as the voice of Death. The Four Horsemen will never be a welcome sight, but they should also make some kind of impact; instead, their arrival carries very little weight.
Adam’s turmoil is ostensibly the emotional core of the show—even if he is mostly unaware of his terrifying destiny, he’s still dealing with puberty and his growing responsibilities. The scenes set in his hometown are appropriately pastoral and full of harmless hijinks, and the bond between the four 11-year-olds is winning. But these moments often come across as commercial breaks or some other form of intermission until we return to the “Aziraphale And Crowley Show.” The same goes for many of the rest of the combatants, who are nowhere near as fleshed out as that divine duo. The exception is Aziraphale’s immediate supervisor, the archangel Gabriel, whom Jon Hamm plays as a delightfully ridiculous combination of Don Draper and Drew Baird. Gabriel is given considerably more to do in the show than in the book (where he’s only mentioned in passing), and Hamm shines in his interactions with his discreetly insubordinate subordinate.
There are a few other deviations from the text, but Gaiman generally adheres to his and Pratchett’s original vision, which includes Anathema Device (Adria Arjona), the descendant of Agnes Nutter (Josie Lawrence), though she’s now a Latinx woman from California who makes her way to England to head off the end of the world. Anathema’s journey finds her wrestling with predetermined fate and how her own agency is undermined by foreknowledge, but it feels a bit undercooked compared to the other main storylines. The nipple-and-witch-obsessed Sergeant Shadwell (Michael McKean), the psychic Madame Tracy (Miranda Richardson), and Newton Pulsifer (Jack Whitehall), who seems the very opposite of another one of Gaiman’s creations, the Technical Boy, also find themselves embroiled in Adam and Anathema’s stories, though they bring little to the proceedings beyond comical squawking and hangdog expressions, respectively.
The problems in Good Omens’ execution go beyond underdeveloped characters in the periphery—its meandering pace begins to grate after just the first episode and rarely ever manages to keep up with the back-and-forth between angel and demon. And it remains slow throughout; one episode features a set of flashbacks that take up roughly 1/3 of its runtime, and that’s all before the credits come in. To be fair, the titles are gorgeous and a credit, if you will, to the whimsy that Pratchett brought to Gaiman’s world-building. Yet no one, not the Devil (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) or the archangel Michael (Doon Mackichan), seems all that concerned about the cataclysmic event that so much of their very existence has been building towards. Good Omens doesn’t give us that much to invest in when we’re not watching Aziraphale and Crowley verbally sparring or wining and dining each other (if there isn’t already slash fiction about the two, Tennant’s throaty suggestion that they run off together will spark some). But Gaiman and Pratchett’s book made clear that the struggle between good and evil is much more complicated than a two-sided war; in that respect, the absurdly charming, occasionally rousing relationship between demon and angel in this adaptation will make you a believer.
Binge recaps by William Hughes will run daily beginning May 31.