If there's such a thing as a fantasy counterpart to A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, then that counterpart is Good Omens. Not the most daring comparison, admittedly—both beloved novels are intensely British at their core in a way that goes far beyond mere provenance—but their true similarity lies not in tone or sensibility or even biscuit-per-page ratio. Rather, they share a defiant book-ness. After beginning as a radio series, Hitchhiker's Guide went on to find life as a TV series, a stage show, a live-action movie, videogames, comic books, and probably a few other things as well; yet, nothing could replicate the magic and joy of simply imagining the impossibilities that Douglas Adams' brain had cooked up.
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The same, presumably, held true for Good Omens. Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's tale of a demon and angel working together to stave off Armageddon worked so well as a book that while its many fans wanted to see it as a movie or show, how such a show might do the book justice was difficult to imagine. The challenges were many, from the aggressively droll exposition to the celestial special effects that might be required. Over the years, adaptations were planned, then abandoned—but when Amazon announced that it would be working with Gaiman to create a limited series (at Pratchett's personal request, no less), Good Omens would finally get a chance to live up to its name.
Yea verily, does it ever.
The best kind of book-to-screen adaptation welcomes fans and newcomers alike, and Good Omens hosts an ecumenical congregation. Even if you're completely unfamiliar with the book, you won't have trouble keeping up. Still, a primer: Crowley (David Tennant) and Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) share an uneasy frenemyship going back to the Garden of Eden. Crowley, then known as Crawly, was there in the form of a serpent to take care of that whole apple thing. Aziraphale was an angel with a flaming sword, which he gave to the newly exiled Adam and Eve.
More recently, however, Crowley delivered the infant Antichrist to an unsuspecting human couple—and now, 11 years later, the race is on to get to that pre-teen hellspawn (Sam Taylor Buck) before the end of the world comes around. The gang's all here: Famine, War, Pollution, and Death ride motorcycles instead of horses; Beelzebub (Anna Maxwell Martin) feels like a composite of Björk and The Cure's Robert Smith; angel Gabriel (Jon Hamm) is impossibly coiffed and quite possibly in need of an anger-management course. The aggressively droll exposition sticks around as well, courtesy of Frances McDormand as the narrator (though she's credited here as The Voice of God because Gaiman "knew God had to be a woman").
The heart of Good Omens beats in the relationship between Crowley and Aziraphale—in their Odd Couple foibles, in their growing dependence on each other, huddled together as their worldviews crumble around them—and Tennant and Sheen nurture that pulse expertly. Tennant oozes rockstar insouciance; Sheen, an aesthete's prissiness. The lesser known of the two, Sheen had the additional burden of playing a character who felt custom made for British comedy stalwarts like Martin Freeman or Simon Pegg, but he owns Aziraphale completely, making him a cuddlier, smilier, much older Niles Crane. (Watch the late-episode flashback scene in which Aziraphale dances the gavotte and tell me Sheen wasn't born for this role.)
The special effects, it should be said, are terrible. Terrible! Laughingly, knowingly terrible. When Crowley takes off his ever-present sunglasses, his reptilian eyes look about three sizes too big for his head; explosions are big and boomy and defy you not to roll your eyes. That's the point. Stripped of its evangelical fear-mongering, the Book of Revelations is patently ridiculous, and leaning into that was exactly how Gaiman and Pratchett celebrated humans' godliest qualities—to give it form without schlock would be to disrespect the show's source.
Peter Rubin writes about media, culture, and virtual reality for WIRED.
Speaking of which. The six episodes are all written by Gaiman and directed by Douglas McKinnon, who directed Tennant in a couple of Doctor Who episodes and who nabbed an Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie for his work on Sherlock. That consistency pays off, giving the episodes—which range from 45 minutes to an hour, long for a comedy—a pleasing ballast. Each catapults you into the next with real propulsion, not with the cotton-candy impermanence of so many shows engineered for binge-watching. And while fans of the book will enjoy how much survives the adaptation process (Queen still plays in every car), that extra time isn't just for marginalia; this is a show that jumps from London to Iowa to Megiddo to Heaven itself and back again. Rushing won't get you anywhere.
With streaming platforms lining up to option fantasy and sci-fi books , it's all too easy to resign yourself to a sea of bloated sagas. Everyone wants the next Game of Thrones or Battlestar Galactica, dozens of characters enticing millions of viewers for as many seasons as they possibly can. How wonderful is it, then, that projects like Good Omens still exist—those that forgo six-seasons-and-a-movie dreams for six episodes and a guaranteed stuck landing. Such restraint may not be the answer to life, the universe, and everything, but it's not a bad a start.
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