There’s a question that inevitably dogs (or maybe that should be hellhounds?) the production of any TV or cinematic adaptation of a popular book: How close do you hew to the original text—i.e., the stuff that presumably got people in the door in the first place—vs. softening or changing it for the natural rhythms of human speech? It’s a query that gets extra tricky when the original author and the person doing the adapting are one and the same, which might help explain why screenwriter Neil Gaiman has filled so much of the first hour of his new Amazon series Good Omens with long passages taken directly from his and Terry Pratchett’s 1990 book. To be fair, they’re good, funny passages—the early paragraphs that lay out the long scholarly efforts to work out the planet’s biblical birthday, only to glibly conclude “The Earth is a Libra,” are some of either author’s funniest work. And yet, Good Omens’ pilot occasionally feels like sitting through the process of listening to a friend read you some of their well-crafted short fiction while an energetic, eye-catching slideshow plays—provided, of course, that your friend was Frances McDormand, and she was also pretending to be the voice of God.
McDormand’s Almighty (whose unseen performance typically aims for “beatifically amused,” and only occasionally falls back on “omnisciently sleepy”) serves as our narrator for this opening hour, walking audiences from “Let there be light” all the way up to T-minus six days until the inevitable destruction of the planet at the hands of the wee widdle-baby Antichrist, destined to crush all of existence between his adorable, hoofy-woofy feet. That’s a prospect made far more complicated by the fact that, despite the best (or worst) efforts of the forces of Heaven and Hell, said son of Satan is not currently growing up as the child of an American dignitary stationed in London (Nick Offerman, whose brief but enthusiastically stupid performance is one of the highlights of the episode). Rather, he’s an off-the-celestial-radar tween by the name of Adam Young (Sam Taylor Buck), who was switched at birth during a sort of postpartum shell game that constitutes the pilot’s most ambitious sequence, filled as it is with winking Satanic nuns, comedic misunderstandings, and the sort of restless camerawork and CGI ephemera that suggests a series positively desperate to keep viewer’s attention on the screen.
That hyperactive lack of confidence in the material is Good Omens’ most obvious defect to date, especially when it gets in the way of its clearest asset: The comedic chemistry between Michael Sheen and David Tennant, anchoring the whole series as eternal frenemies Aziraphale and Crowley. As the angel who guarded the Garden Of Eden, and the serpent whose temptations brought the whole thing crashing down, the duo serve as the show’s unlikely heart, attempting to quietly prevent the coming Armageddon, not out of some sense of cosmic rebellion, but because of their tacit agreement that Earth and humanity are a lot better—or at least more interesting—than an eternity of Heaven or Hell.
Sheen’s Aziraphale is mostly bubbly awkwardness, but Tennant has the much harder, and more impressive, job as the infernal tempter Crowley. Not only does he have to labor beneath a variety of facial prosthetics, sunglasses, and unflattering hairstyles, but he also gets the bulk of Gaiman and Pratchett’s original dialogue filtered through his voice, to frequently mixed effect. It’s not for nothing that the episode’s most compelling scene—in which Crowley attempts to convince his long-time ally to just straight-up kill the kid they think is doomed to end the world—is an original creation for the series, allowing Tennant and Sheen to react off of each other, and Crowley to show his temptation skills in full. It flows far more smoothly than the earlier “drunk” sequence in which the demon tries to make his case by pointing out what a raw deal the gorillas and whales will be getting once the sky turns red and the seas start turning to boiling blood.
While the show’s other characters fail to register, Sheen and Tennant gel, whether they’re idly speculating about God’s motives in putting that damn tree so close to Adam and Eve, or simply shooting the shit about their shared and certain doom. In its first episode, Good Omens follows a fairly simple rule: The closer it sticks to Aziraphale and Crowley, the better it works. That’s most worrying in the brief scenes we spend with the Antichrist himself, Adam, and his gang of young friends, who appear to have been transported in from an entirely different series, full of bucolic landscapes and sentimental slow-motion shots—and very little in the way of entertainingly snarky demon-on-angel banter. (There is a hellhound, but the less we say about the show’s visibly inexpensive CGI to bring the creature to life, the better.) We’re presumably going to be spending a lot of time with these kids over the next six episodes, and it’s going to be a very nervous balancing act to see how well the show integrates them with its more obviously satirical impulses and wider-scale interests. For now, though, Good Omens isn’t quite Heaven, and isn’t quite Hell; it’s trending somewhere right down the middle—in the beginning, at least.
- Welcome to The A.V. Club’s coverage of Good Omens! We’ll be posting a new review here every day for the next six days, the better for folks to follow along with the apocalyptic fun. (And if you’re feeling impatient, you can also check out Deputy TV Editor Danette Chavez’s spoiler-light pre-air review of the whole season here.)
- As for my bona fides: I originally read the novel back in the early 2000s, mostly due to my feverish love of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. I’m more lukewarm on Gaiman, although, by all accounts, he wrote most of the parts of the novel (the horseman, especially) that I loved. I re-read the book last week for the third or fourth time ahead of taking on this gig, so those sections that lift directly from it are probably sticking out more for me than they would for most.
- I glossed over the bit where Aziraphale and Crowley moonlight as young Warlock’s would-be tutors; Sheen comes very close to embarrassing himself as a rustic, buck-toothed gardener, but Tennant is unsurprisingly convincing as a very dark take on Mary Poppins or Nanny McPhee.
- Hell’s various non-Crowley representatives don’t leave much of an impression, but it’s nice to see Jon Hamm as Aziraphale’s direct report. His glee at Earth’s various clothing options is a nice little touch.
- I’m writing these reviews in order—and before I watch the following episode—so I don’t know if we’ll end up seeing Nina Sosanya as Sister Mary Loquacious again. She does a great job of humanizing a rather high-concept (Satanic nun with a religious devotion to small talk) character in her short time on the screen.
- Crowley’s assertion that nothing sends people to Hell faster than fucking with their phone coverage is even more cutting now than it was back in 1990. (On that note, I’m legitimately curious to see how the show will handle an upcoming plot point that’s largely based around answering machines.)
- David Tennant’s satisfied body language when he was refilling the wine bottles with the wine he’d already drunk—not a euphemism—made me terribly, delightedly uncomfortable.
- “The sort of growl that starts in the back of one throat and ends up deep in someone else’s” remains a lovely little piece of description.
- “But Pepper, you are a girl.” “That’s just sexist.” Hey, maybe the kids will be alright.
- “Ineffable” count: 2!