The present-day pop cultural landscape in which Amazon’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens premieres is in a curious, apocalypse-obsessed state that Agnes Nutter would have found quaint, but fascinating all the same. Epic films and television shows about hapless heroes attempting to avert or prevent the prophesied end times are a dime a dozen, and audiences have become so inured to them that we don’t particularly care about the exact mechanics. The world is imperilled, heroes do what they can to save the day, things usually end up working out all right, and we’re on to the next doomsday blockbuster
Good Omens knows that you can’t look at a screen without being presented with some version of the apocalypse, and so it foregoes any pretence of bombastic grandeur to instead tell a charming story about the joys of friendship, as well as the everyday fuckups that make the world feel as if it’s coming to an end, when in reality it’s just another day that ends in “y.”
The six-episode limited series presumes you’re casually familiar enough with the broad strokes of Christianity to step right into its story about the angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and the demon Crowley (David Tennant), two of the oldest beings in the universe who unexpectedly became close friends during the millennia they spend together on Earth as emissaries of heaven and hell. Though the pair have been told by their respective sides that they’re sworn enemies in the fated great war between the forces of good and evil, their friendship begins at a point in reality’s existence when they’re both still quite aware of the fact that deep down, if they’re being technical about things, angels and demons aren’t really all that different. There was the whole ideological schism bit, sure, but they’re all celestial and/or infernal beings who report to higher powers that are supremely concerned with making sure that everything goes according to God’s (a disembodied voice played by Frances McDormand) ineffable plan.
From Crowley and Aziraphale’s perspectives, their sworn duties are to strategically spread miracles and misery throughout history in order to bring about the events foretold in the Book of Revelation. In those moments when the pair are forced to exert their influence on their surroundings at random, or when they deviate from their orders by leaving their posts to have lunch with one another, they both realise they’ve got some degree of free will and are able, in some small capacity, to live their lives for themselves (and one another). At least, that’s what they believe to be true, and Good Omens wants you to believe it, too.
Because the entirety of God’s plan is something that only God can know, there’s no way that anyone, us included, could understand all of its ins and outs and know how much the overall course of history played out the way it was “supposed” to, and how much of it was all random coincidence. The point, Good Omens reminds us, is that the Antichrist is scheduled to arrive on Earth at a specific point in time, he’s bringing an apocalyptic war with him, and neither the angels nor the demons want to prevent it. They want to win it.
But because both the angel and the demon develop a fondness for Earthly things as a result of their work on the planet with mortals, the two devise a plan to...slow things down, shall we say. If the both of them are responsible for creating equal, but opposite forces of good and evil, there’s no reason that they can’t simply cancel one another’s actions out here and there and maintain a secret alliance with one another.
Aziraphale and Crowley watching Adam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden.
When Aziraphale bemoans to Crowley that the first phase of events leading to Armageddon are playing out like “a cinematic graphic show you wish to sell in as many countries as possible,” you can hear Neil Gaiman’s voice translating his and Pratchett’s source material into snark-streaked contemporary commentary. For all of Good Omens’ modern, cleverly-executed technical and visual flair, the series still feels a near one-to-one adaptation of the novel, in large part because of Gaiman’s scripting and Douglas MacKinnon’s directing of the season’s briskly-paced six episodes. Together, it’s clear that the two had a shared a vision for the show, which has an overall dreamy, almost fairytale-like quality to it that keeps things both fanciful and sometimes haunting. But it’s also Good Omens’ necessarily large cast of supporting characters who bring the show to life as they cross paths with one another in the days leading up to the great dread.
Due to a group of Satanic nuns botching a plan to swap the newborn Antichrist with the baby of an American diplomat (Nick Offerman), all of the angels and demons in existence end up becoming transfixed with a perfectly ordinary young boy with nothing in the way of Satanic parentage. Meanwhile, the actual destroyer of worlds, a boy called Adam Young (Sam Taylor Buck) grows up in the English countryside, and as he begins to come into his nascent powers on his 11th birthday, the world is plunged into whimsical, biblical chaos. Good Omens repeatedly touches on the idea that it’s often in our attempts to be prepared to handle unexpected events that we ultimately end up making things more difficult with The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, a long-dead witch known for encouraging people in her village to live healthy lives and being the sole prophet in human history to accurately predict the future.
By cryptically chronicling all of the events leading up to Adam Young’s ascension, Nutter ensures that her distant descendant Anathema Device (Adria Arjona) has a chance to stop him with the help of Newton Pulsifer (Jack Whitehall), the distant descendant of the witch hunter who killed Agnes. But by accidentally losing the sole copy of Agnes’ prophecies, which the angels and demons would all love to have their hands on, Anathema inadvertently ends up throwing a wrench in everyone’s plans. The apocalypse is coming, sort of, but no one is in the driver’s seat except for Adam himself, who neither understands what he is nor if he’s particularly inclined toward good or evil.
Good Omens smartly treats the apocalypse like an appointment all of its characters are aware of, as opposed to the kind of overwhelmingly devastating event it’s usually depicted as. The angels, demons, and humans all know that the bloodshed and gore might come, but the show doesn’t frame that aspect of the apocalypse as the real reason people want to stop it. The Antichrist coming into his full power would mean having to say goodbye to the weird, gross, wonderful random things about life that make it enjoyable. At different points in the series, Aziraphale and Crowley list things they love (like food and booze) that they’d miss were they ever caught by their colleagues, but it’s really bigger than that. In its comedic framing of the apocalypse, Good Omens makes you appreciate that what all sides of the would-be conflict want is for the long-term buildup to it to be inevitable.
Aziraphale and Crowley’s chemistry with one another is a core component of their characterisations in the book and Tennant and Sheen capture them both brilliantly with just the right blend of genuine tenderness and exasperation. Neither of them directly say it to one another, but Crowley and Aziraphale are more than friends or partners in any mortal sense of the words, they’re the only people in existence who can understand one another and can’t conceive of existing without being connected.
Good Omens has every right to be as chuffed with itself as it comes across, “chuffed” being the appropriate word here because the series is decidedly an English production both in storytelling format and tone. These are good things, because the world needs more tightly-constructed, over-and-done miniseries. Regardless of whether you’re a fan of the novel, Good Omens is more than capable of giving you a reason to plop down and devour it in a sitting or two. You’ll have a chuckle, and come away from it feeling better about the little things you indulge yourself in that make you happy.