“Good Omens”, starting on BBC2 tonight after an exclusive first run on Amazon Prime is a nice and accurate translation of a long-thought unfilmable book to the small screen, but that’s about it. Despite note-perfect casting, decent special effects and the presence of Neil Gaiman himself as showrunner, somehow the series ends up less than the sum of its parts, lacking that divine spark that made it crackle on the page.
When the time comes for the end of the world, it’s down to the demon Crowley (David Tennant) and the angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) to ensure that everything proceeds as per the ineffable plan. There’s only one small hitch: back at the birth of the anti-Christ, there was a bit of a mix-up and while the hordes of hell have nurtured a perfectly ordinary human to lead their hellish crusade, a very ordinary family have raised a being of phenomenal diabolical power.
First, let us look at the cast. Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the miscastings: for it is the number of no man; and that number is zero, zero, zero. It’s a triumph of bringing the main characters from the novel to vivid life and no more so than in the pairing of David Tennant and Michael Sheen. There’s no better pairing you could think of to play these characters (although I do wonder how it would have been if their roles had, like the baby anti-christ, been switched at the very beginning). It’s their utterly beguiling and surprisingly, heartwarmingly intimate chemistry which keeps this adaptation from ever being the misfire it could so easily have been.
Supported by the likes of Jack Whitehall, Michael McKean, Jon Hamm, Daniel Mays and Frances McDormand as the voice of God, they bring to the screen a story of rivalry and friendship spanning 6,000 years leading up to, and then slightly beyond, the end of the world. It’s a whacky, eccentric and charming version of the story which does a creditable job of adapting the source material despite its mercurial qualities.
The novel itself is, at its foundation, a spoof of the “The Omen”, positing the question what if the switch went awry and the mighty anti-christ was raised by a normal family. Around this central idea, Neil Gaiman and the late, great Terry Pratchett weave sharp satires and wry meditations on every aspect of modern life and spirituality, belief and faith, free will and destiny. Although steeped in biblical lore, it’s a wonderfully humanist tale at heart and despite its apocalyptic subject, resolutely light in heart and (forked) tongue in cheek.
Where the series struggles (and as Mrs Craggus can testify, this doesn’t trouble those who haven’t read the original novel near as much) is in bringing the depth of the novel’s wit and sagacity off the page and onto the screen. By necessity, we’re deprived of the inner monologues of many ancillary characters, not least of all Dog’s (one of the novel’s best and most insightful characters). By expediency, we don’t spend nearly as much time with Adam and his friends and so they’re not as developed or fully rounded as they are in the book by the time they come to play an important role in the story. Perhaps its due in part to the absence of Terry Pratchett, meaning Gaiman may have felt compelled to be as accurate to the book as possible and avoid making any significant changes which may have better suited the visual medium but there’s no escaping the fact it just doesn’t quite ‘pop’ on screen the way it does on the page.
Overall, though, “Good Omens” is still jolly good fun and manages to bring enough to the screen to fill its six episodes with wit, wonder and wisdom. It’s no mean feat to bring the Apocalypse to life on the small screen, but you couldn’t wish for two better guides to the end times than Tennant and Sheen. Just do yourself a favour – once you’ve enjoyed the show, go and read the good book. No, not that one, the one this show is based on.