Synecdoche, New York
If we don't "go to the movies" in any form, our minds wither and sicken.
“Good Omens” begins, in a sense, with a meet-cute. Two angels—one divine, one fallen—stand high atop a wall that surrounds a garden, or rather, the garden. They watch as two people clad in fig leaves flee paradise, armed only with a hard-earned knowledge that can’t be seen, and a flaming sword, which definitely can. And they talk—about the nature of good and evil, the more mundane aspects of their jobs, of the decisions made by the people both upstairs and down, about the weather. It should be obvious to anyone watching that these two beings have well and truly hit it off, that despite the soaring white wings of one and glistening black wings (and snake eyes) of the other, they’re somehow meant to be pals. Maybe it’s part of the “ineffable” great plan of the creator. Maybe it’s just chemistry. Whatever it is, it looks like fun, and watching it ain’t half bad either.
Yet that’s not the true beginning of “Good Omens”—at least, it’s not the beginning of this televised incarnation. It just feels that way. This Amazon/BBC adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s beloved comic novel starts with a lengthy monologue from God (who is voiced, naturally, by Frances McDormand). It’s entertaining writing, lively and often surprising, yet it doesn’t hold a candle to that meet-cute. The same can be said of “Good Omens,” a series that, like the book from which it springs, dwells endlessly on and is the result of a fast and lasting friendship. Unlike the novel, however, the adaptation doesn’t have the luxury of inviting readers directly into the minds of the people who inhabit (and who wrote) these friendships. Instead, it’s dependent on a writer adapting his own work, a director making the madhouse world of the novel seem real, and on actors, each attempting their own tiny miracle: To create in moments what’s normally built over years of talk. Centuries, if you’re an infernal being.
It’s one such jointly-created miracle that makes “Good Omens” well worth your time, though its success also threatens to throw the whole affair off-balance. It would seem that putting Michael Sheen and David Tennant together is both blessing and curse—mostly, fortunately, the former.
Aziraphale (Sheen) likes a nice crepe, a linen suit, a fine wine. What he’s not great with is questions. It’s not that he’s got a shortage of them, but rather an excess, and they’re not often convenient in his line of work—for example, he asks his direct supervisor, the Archangel Gabriel (an expertly cast Jon Hamm) who actually summons the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and Gabriel shrugs it off with a pointed “not my department. His lightly repressed tendency to question may explain in part his friendship with Crowley (Tennant), an angel-turned demon who “didn’t so much fall from grace as slope slowly downward.” Crowley, too, loves his earthly pleasures, and that explains (in part) the pair’s distress when they learn that the End Times are upon us. Tasked with begrudgingly delivering the Antichrist to his new human parents, Crowley immediately begins brainstorming ways he and Aziraphale can together influence the child and thus forestall armageddon—but an early slip-up means they’ve got the wrong kid, and the real Son of Satan has grown up as Adam Young (Sam Taylor Buck), a normal-enough boy whose 11th birthday puts him perilously close to bringing about the destruction of life as we know it.
Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that. Gaiman and Pratchett’s novel meanders through its story in incredibly appealing fashion, stopping with frequency for footnotes that are often as entertaining, if not as integral to the story, as the main body of the text. (Many of those footnotes are adapted into the show in a less abrupt, but also often less amusing, fashion.) That means we have more time to get to know characters like Anathema Device (Adria Arjona), a witch interpreting the surprisingly accurate predictions of her ancestor Agnes Nutter (Josie Lawrence) who we see preparing for her death, which she has also predicted. In the novel, every footnote, every apparent jaunt off-topic, every new character introduced feels as though it’s deepening the focus and broadening the palate of this world Aziraphale and Crowley love so much. The more we wander, the more vital the A-story—that would be the saving of the world from angelic and demonic forces at war—becomes.
Would that were the case here. The problem with a story that both wanders and is predicated on a ticking time bomb and race against the clock, is that to spend time on one can weaken the other. The plot moseys alone at a slow but steady pace, bursts of energy often undermined by the same action taking place again an episode or two later, or by filmmaking (from Douglas Mackinnon) more concerned with quirk than with questions. (Get ready for endless conversations about whether or not Aziraphale and Crowley’s coworkers can trust them, all painted with the same broad brush and without escalation.) More damaging is the fact that the narrative comes with the built-in contrivance that, while the forces of light and darkness bustle about in bureaucratic fervor, the real action is happening in a suburb none of them has ever even heard of—but that action, centering on Adam and his friends, is rarely anywhere near as compelling as what’s happening elsewhere. Both the series and the young actors involved don’t seem to be much interested in what’s going on (at least, until the final installment); somehow, a secret suburban Antichrist comes off deadly dull.
Then again, some of that might be due to comparison (a fate befalling, though to a lesser extent, actors as gifted as Michael McKean, Miranda Richardson, Anna Maxwell Martin, Nick Offerman, and others). Sheen and Tennant are so good, individually and especially together, that it’s possible any disinterest in the other corners of this series may in fact be generated by eagerness to return to wherever Aziraphale and Crowley might be. It’s telling that the show’s finest installment centers, for most of its runtime, on their friendship over the years, the ways in which it’s grown and changed, and the mile-markers at which those changes began. Tennant gives Crowley an aura of undeniable coolness that still somehow feels like the costume of someone taking the role that’s been thrust upon them and giving it a good go; when he’s with Aziraphale, that mask slips, and those shifts prove endlessly fascinating. Sheen does equally good work as a creature weakly fending off years of doubts exacerbated by a potent affection for a being that his coworkers would write off as purely evil. (Sheen also allows his angel to spend a fair amount of time trying very hard not to stare at Crowley’s lips, which is, shall we say, effective.)
Together, it’s like watching two musicians at the top of their game play a duet; they positively sing. In those moments, the vibrancy and energy of Gaiman and Pratchett’s book shoots to the surface, and is even deepened and enriched by the artists interpreting it. When Gaiman and Mackinnon return to those actors, the series becomes the compelling story of an unlikely friendship, a sort of undefined rom-com between two immortals with the end of the world as a quirky backdrop. That’s the “Good Omens” worth watching. The rest of it’s not bad—not world-ending, but not exactly heavenly, either.
All episodes screened for review.
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