TV miniseries review: Good Omens (Amazon Prime, 2019), directed by Douglas Mackinnon
tl;dr: While some bits are missing and others added, it doesn’t suck. Also: Spoilers!
The world is about to end, much to the disappointment of the angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and the demon Crowley (David Tennant), who have grown to like the place. Their respective bosses are very much in favour of a war to end all wars, and don’t mind the Earth being destroyed in the process.
The baby Antichrist is supposed to be delivered to an American diplomat couple (Jill Winternitz and Nick Offerman) at a rural Oxfordshire nunnery, but thanks to slightly inept nun (Nina Sosanya) he ends up with the Youngs (Sian Brooke and Daniel Mays), very much a local, English, couple.
In a bid to influence the young Antichrist to be neither good nor bad, Crowley and Aziraphale follow the American diplomat’s son, so when the child’s eleventh birthday passes without the Hellhound making an appearance, they realise they’ve got the wrong kid …
Meanwhile in London, technological disaster Newton Pulsifer (Jack Whitehall) finds a guaranteed analogue new job with the Witchfinder Army. Although it’s not so much of an Army, seeing as there’s technically only one of them left: Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell (Michael McKean). They are to investigate Weird Things, which may well be witch-related.
Witch-related is exactly what you could call Anathema Device (Adria Arjona), who has taken up residence in a cottage in Tadfield, rural Oxfordshire. She’s descended from Agnes Nutter (Josie Lawrence), a witch burned at the stake in the 1600s who wrote The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch – the only surviving copy of which has remained in the family ever since. Anathema knows Armageddon is nigh, and that it will start in Tadfield. She just doesn’t know how or by whom.
Witches are also a fascinating topic to The Them, a group of four eleven-year-olds. There’s feisty Pepper (Amma Ris), precocious Wensleydale (Alfie Taylor), messy Brian (Ilan Galkoff), and their leader Adam (Sam Taylor Buck). Incidentally, it’s Adam’s birthday and, as luck would have it, the kind of dog he’s always wanted just happens to appear …
Right, well, that’s the general story, which those who have read the 1990 book penned by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman already know. Those who have read the book more or less religiously will of course also note that there are some omissions to this tale: no Greasy Johnson gang (so viewers never know what happened to Baby #3), no Johnny Two Bones or Jesus being the telephone repairman on the switchboard of my life, no Other Horsemen of the Apocalypse, no verdant Brazilian shopping mall or the gardening radio show, and they don’t show what happens to the soldier Aziraphale teleports away or that Shadwell and Madame Tracy (Miranda Richardson) live above a corner shop. I can absolutely see why some things were cut away, as they don’t bring the main plot forward, but it’s sad at the same time, because I love the Other Four Horsemen in the book.
Having no innate rivalry with another gang also means that Adam’s final argument is slightly different (although mentioned in passing), which I wasn’t as keen on. The way the ending is in the show almost makes it sound like they’re setting up for a sequel, whereas in the book it feels more like kid logic making the adults look foolish.
The show is narrated by God (voiced by Frances McDormand), which at times feels really clunky. It’s a nice way to get the text from the books in there, but it’s also jarring at the same time. Especially in the beginning, when Hastur (Ned Dennehy) and Ligur (Ariyon Bakare) are skulking with intent in the graveyard at the very beginning. Fortunately, as the minutes ticked by, I either got used to the narration or the narrative text improved, because it got better and less clunky.
While some bits were missing, others definitely were not: busybody Mr Tyler (Bill Paterson) and his Dachshund, the International Express Man (Simon Merrells), Queen music (although we don’t get the “two weeks in a car and everything becomes Queen’s Greatest Hits” explanation), the New Aquarian, Elvis flipping burgers in Des Moines, the Tibetans, Atlanteans, aliens, Dick Turpin (here a Robin Reliant, for practical purposes), séance attendees Mrs Ormorod and her Ron, Mr Scroggie and Julia; the United Holdings (Holdings) PLC shoot-out (which involves Ben Willbond!!), Aziraphale’s book shop and Crowley’s terrified houseplants, young Newt causing a power outage, and so on.
It’s very detailed, so while lovers of the book will notice the bits that are missing there are so many things that aren’t so it kind of makes up for it. Plus the bits that are missing are reasonable as to why they’re missing. How would you show the Greasy Johnson gang rivalry? (Not to mention you’d have to find and deal with more child actors.) Why Madame Tracy’s spare helmet didn’t have a big sunflower sticker on I don’t get, though. You’d have thought that would be one of the easier tiny details to implement, especially when they went to the trouble of putting in so many other details.
There are changes too. If you have an obscure Asian car manufacturer who was too rubbish to become the likes of Toyota, Hyundai and Honda, that’s not going to be easy either, as you’d have to design it, so much easier just to have it as an already existing yet still kind of rubbish car. Anathema comes from California, because her family got very rich (thanks to Agnes’s advice that her descendants invest in “Mr Jobbes” certain variety of apple) and emigrated. There doesn’t seem to be any real reason for this change, other than that they hired an American actress and felt like pandering to American audiences so they’d feel more included in what is otherwise a very British story.
There isn’t a ridiculously peaceful Mediterranean island that suddenly starts fighting when Red Zuigiber/War (Mireille Enos) shows up. (There is no British couple hiding under the table saying they should’ve gone to Torremolinos like they normally do) Instead, she shows up somewhere in Africa where three warring tribes “occasionally find peace” (or words to that effect) and are about to sign a peace treaty. It feels a bit insulting to say that Africans would only ever stop warring with each other by accident, they’re not savages!
Which brings me on to say that the cast is pretty diverse, which is a good thing (Pollution is played by Phillipino actor Lourdes Faberes, for instance), but it does feel a bit problematic when you notice that it’s pretty much only the actors of colour that are killed off (with a few exceptions, like the nun and, obviously, War). But maybe I remember it wrong, I don’t know. I hope so, because otherwise I’d be quite disappointed in what is otherwise an excellent production through and through.
Of the things that are added, we get to see more behind the scenes of both Heaven and Hell. Heaven is represented by the Archangel Gabriel (Jon Hamm with purple contact lenses), backed up by the Archangel Michael (Doon Mackichan), Sandalphon (Paul Chahidi) and Uriel (Gloria Obianyo) and is set on an empty office floor. Hell is a dark, dingy basement, and here’s where we find Beelzebub (Anna Maxwell Martin). Satan also puts in an appearance, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems to be the go-to guy these days when you need someone to portray a big, red, evil creature.
We also get more of what Crowley and Aziraphale were up to between Aziraphale giving Adam and Eve his flaming sword at Eden and the arrival of the Antichrist. They’re present when Noah builds the Ark, when Jesus is crucified (bold choice), during the reign of King Arthur, when Hamlet is being rehearsed at the Globe Theatre (with Reece Shearsmith as Shakespeare), during the French Revolution, during the Blitz in London (this scene includes Steve Pemberton and Mark Gatiss), and so on . There is also an added conflict between the two over the years, and during the last crucial days, which I don’t recall from the book.
But all in all, it’s an adaptation that stays close to the book, and where it differs still stays true to the spirit of it – probably because Neil Gaiman himself was the showrunner and writer for it. So why did I say that it doesn’t suck, right at the top? Because of this:
We are determined that it won’t suck too.
— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) September 10, 2018
Terry Pratchett would’ve been be so proud.
So, no, it didn’t suck. It’s richly detailed, fun, true to the book in ways most other adaptations would only dream of, perfectly cast, well-acted, and we binge-watched the whole six episodes starting the morning it was released. If Amazon Prime can deliver this with regards to my favourite novel, can we hope that they also deliver something great when it comes to my favourite book series, currently in pre-production? One can only hope.
As a devotee of the book, Good Omens definitely lived up to my expectations. I chose to not re-read it before watching the show, as I know if I re-read something and then watch the adaptation, everything is so fresh in my mind that I just end up noticing all the bits that are missing and get annoyed by it. Having been a while since I last read it (too long, come to think of it), I could watch the show and enjoy it for what it was. (Like with Tintin.) Now I feel like re-reading it again for the umpteenth time and then maybe watch the series again. And then get it on disc when they release it, in case it has deleted scenes or other goodies that I want in my life.
5 out of 5 chattering nuns.