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Residing on the shelf labelled “potentially unfilmable” for years since its publication, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s cult apocalyptic comedy tome was perhaps always going to be best served by the boosted running time of a TV series and the deep pockets of a streaming service such as its final home with Amazon. After all, people such as Terry Gilliam had tried to turn it into a film, only to be frustrated by the wordy, footnote-heavy style and, at one point, real world situations (Gilliam pitched his take shortly after 9/11 and studios were in no mood for world-ending stories, even if they featured a comic partnership between a demon and an angel looking to stop the coming armageddon).
Spurred by a dying wish from Pratchett in 2015, Gaiman has grasped the reins for the series, turning it into a six-episode miniseries and attempting to bottle the wild wit and imagination that he and Pratchett poured into the 1990 novel. And for the most part, he has either met or exceeded expectations. Which is no mean feat, given how beloved the source material. It helps that Gaiman recruited a killer cast to bring the story to life. The forces of good and evil collide over a plan to bring about the end of the world (featuring some well-used and happily tweaked tropes such as an antichrist child and the Four Horsemen (horsepeople? Bikerpeople in this regard?) Of The Apocalypse. At the heart of it all are angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and demon Crowley (David Tennant), who have known each other since the (Biblical) birth of humanity and, in the millennia that have followed, are in no hurry to see everything come to a flaming, war-between-heaven-and-hell end.
Gaiman has cannily trimmed the expansive plot down to what really works on screen.
Sheen and Tennant are fine casting for the central pair, a nervy gourmand-turned-bookseller and a swaggering louche boasting an unexpected way with plants (a shouty, fear-driven way). It’s a partnership that sparks with real warmth and joy, even as this seemingly mismatched duo bond over the centuries. Yet while they’re the focus, the rest of the series has some excellent performances, including Jon Hamm (as the Angel Gabriel), Michael McKean (as the pugnacious Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell) and Frances McDormand keeping the tome’s asides alive as God, narrating the background and filling in the basics. If there’s a weak link, it’s the kids playing the antichrist and his friends, who while they’re not disastrous, are broader brushstrokes than some of the other characters, feeling less inspired by the likes of Just William and more ripped from those pages. And, while it’s well shot, there are one or two moments that are a little more in the style of cheaper ’70s sci-fi telly, though that in its way adds to the charm.
Gaiman has cannily trimmed the expansive plot down to what really works on screen, lightly tinkered with the timeline to make it all feel relevant and fresh, while keeping many of the elements that work. It still has a lot to say about the world, humanity, religion and what really went on with the creation of the M25. It’s a relief to note that Good Omens hurdles the adaptation barriers with some space to spare, channeling the likes of Douglas Adams along the way. No screen version of the book was going to be perfect, or work for everyone, but this is probably the closest we were going to get. Praise be!