For those experiencing their first apocalypse, Good Omens is a six-part television adaptation of a 1990 novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. It’s a comedy take on Armageddon: the battle at the end of the world as detailed in the ‘Revelation’ of St John of Patmos in the New Testament, featuring angels, bowls, seals (don’t ask), the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and most centrally, the rise of the Antichrist whose role it is to rule in the name of Satan and ultimately trigger that final battle. More specifically, Good Omens is a comedy take on the way that book of ultimate weirdness has been interpreted in things like The Omen, and what would happen if things went a bit wrong.
As a way into this potentially colossal story, the story uses two unusual devices – a book of prophecies by Agnes Nutter (Josie Lawrence), an English witch from the Middle Ages to both vaguely amend John of Patmos’ version of the apocalypse and ensure that Nutter’s own descendants would have a role to play, allowing for a certain amount of ineffability at work; and Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and Crowley (David Tennant), an angel and a demon who have rather ‘gone native’ from being on the Earth for so long, and who have agreed to work together to – if not exactly sabotage the end of the world – then at least maybe neutralise it…
The ‘meat’ of this first episode is heavily dependent on the plot of the first Omen movie, in which the newborn child of a high-ranking US diplomat is swapped for the child of the devil. Add one more baby to the mix, give it a bit of a switcheroo fumble due to humans being human, and what you now have is the son of a US diplomat being influenced over the years by various odd members of staff – a demonic nanny, an angelic gardener and so on, while the actual Antichrist is brought up relatively influence-free by some almost appallingly ‘normal’ people in a quiet English village. It’s a tad on the twee side, and could be said to argue for the wonderfulness of quiet English villages rather harder than they actually deserve, but it’s pretty Omen-mockingly funny – a particular high point being Tennant in drag as a nanny, singing a lullaby of the damned to the non-Antichrist.
“In The Beginning” ends with a cliffhanger that turned the first Omen movie around too: the arrival of the Hellhound to pad by its master’s side and kill things for him. Its arrival with the actual Antichrist-child, rather than the one that Crowley and Aziraphale have been guiding, is the final proof they need that everything’s gone a bit Pete ‘the Adversary, Destroyer of Worlds’ Tong. The child has come into his full powers, Armageddon’s about a week away, and they’ve lost the Antichrist – which is both a great high-point, enormously indicative of the tone of the book, and a way to guarantee people tune in for episode two.
One of the most noticeable things about this new version of Good Omens is that despite an updating in terms of cultural reference points, the source material is already nearly thirty years old, and it shows – in terms of the gentleness of the humour. Four decades on from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, modern audiences aren’t expected to be up in arms about the blasphemy of Good Omens; instead, it comes over very well-meaning and British and slightly twee.
That said, Good Omens looks absolutely freaking amazing. It’s the kind of thing that happens when both authors go on to individually be much beloved by huge audiences around the world; audiences who gleefully overlook the oddness of some of the storytelling choices and hold the work to their hearts to this day. High-ranking stars want to be seen in works connected to authors such as these; highly skilled technicians want to work on them. And here, they do, giving Good Omens that almost oversaturated look and feel, both in colour and brightness and in star-spotting bingo. With David Tennant doing his best Bill Nighy impression playing the human version of the Serpent from the Garden of Eden, and Michael Sheen playing the angel with the flaming sword who told Adam and Eve to naff off out of the Garden, you have two very safe pairs of hands at the heart of your story.
Not everything in the Good Omens garden is rosy, however. It’s taken a leaf out of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and used an actor (Frances McDormand, no less) as essentially the voice of the book – or in this case, the Voice Of God. In Episode One, it adds to the experience in some moments – the baby-switcheroo is certainly enhanced by the voiceover – but in other moments, it adds massively to the tweeness factor, while simultaneously getting in the way, such as when describing in voiceover the emergence and nature of two demons who we can see on screen. It’s literally a case of showing and telling, and it’s the telling that is entirely redundant. In addition, the two old-school demons, Hastur (Ned Dennehy) and Ligur (Ariyon Bakare) feel entirely underwhelming whenever they’re on screen; Hell looks more like a modern NHS Doctor’s surgery than a hall of eternal damnation (although it is possible I haven’t thought that analogy through fully enough…); and the whole thing has the slightly ‘forced fun’ feel of kids thrust together because their parents want to talk.
But, overall, as the beginning of what is undoubtedly the shiniest, most star-studded version of Good Omens you’re likely to see in your lifetime, “In The Beginning” does make you want to do what the hardcore, hear-no-evil fans do – overcome the niggles in your brain and go with it. After all, we’ve rarely felt closer to the Apocalypse than we do right now. If we can’t have a belly laugh, let’s at least have a chuckle on the way.
Good Omens is available now on Amazon Prime Video in the UK and around the world.