The Heaven and Hell of Good Omens

Neil Gaiman’s six-part Amazon miniseries about an odd couple at the end of the world is an acquired taste.

Your own personal appreciation for Good Omens might hinge on whether you find its jokes to be impossibly delightful or exceedingly indigestible. (Amazon)

The new Amazon/BBC miniseries Good Omens is essentially six hours of the same joke, and that joke is the universe itself. Or—more precisely—the chronic absurdity of heaven, hell, and everything that falls in between. Adapted by Neil Gaiman from the book he co-wrote more than 30 years ago with the late fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett, Good Omens is an ongoing battle not between good and evil but between the profound and the ridiculous. It’s the literary technique of bathos, turned into television. Walking into a London bookshop in one scene, the archangel Sandalphon (played by Paul Chahidi) wrinkles his nose, saying, “Something smells … evil.” The angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) flinches for a moment, relaxes, and replies, “That’ll be the Jeffrey Archer books, I’m afraid.”

Your own personal appreciation for Good Omens might hinge on whether you find jokes like these to be impossibly delightful or exceedingly indigestible. (“I’m here spreading foment,” the demon, Crowley, played by David Tennant, tells Aziraphale during one flashback to the Middle Ages. “What is that, some kind of porridge?” Aziraphale responds.) Irreverence is baked into the book’s conceit as a comic chronicle of the end of days and the collaborative efforts of an angel and a demon to prevent the demise of all humanity. This is Genesis meets the British children’s series Just William; a rollicking tale of Armageddon that makes infinite time for tea and crumpets. As writers, both Gaiman and Pratchett have the kind of mind that can imagine the world, if not in a grain of sand, then in a cellophane-wrapped sherbet lemon.

In Good Omens, Gaiman’s creativity seems almost entirely unfettered—by possibility, by structure, or by budgets. This is a series that’s narrated by God herself (voiced by Frances McDormand), and whose opening sequence features an animated explanation of the creation of the world (those fossilized dinosaurs are apparently a big joke that paleontologists haven’t gotten yet). It’s outside the Garden of Eden that Crowley—or Crawly, since he was recently tempting Eve in serpentine form—meets Aziraphale for the first time. One is a swaggering, cocksure soldier of Satan with moves like Jagger and yellow snake eyes. The other is an angel in the mold of a slightly prissy librarian, generous of heart but prone to vanity and epicurism. They hit it off almost immediately.

The dynamic between Tennant’s Crowley and Sheen’s Aziraphale is what makes Good Omens, which in its finest moments feels like a gay-ish, biblical When Harry Met Sally. The third episode’s pre-credits sequence, which runs a stonking 30 minutes long, details the encounters the pair have had over the years: an early run-in as Noah is constructing his ark, a meet-cute at the Crucifixion, a rendezvous during the French Revolution. It’s in foggy Arthurian England that they finally figure out why they’re always in the same place at the same time, each trying to shift the balance of good and evil on Earth during pivotal historic moments, and only canceling out each other’s efforts.

So they form an agreement of sorts that lasts for 6,000 years, until the moment when the anti-Christ threatens to precipitate the final battle between heaven and hell that ends all life on Earth. But there’s been a complicated kind of switcheroo that means the child everyone thinks is the son of Satan is just a surly tweenager with affluenza, while the actual anti-Christ has been raised for the past 11 years by an unremarkable couple in the rural village of Lower Tadfield. There’s also a witch, Anathema Device (Adria Arjona); a witch-hunter (Michael McKean); an affable nerd who destroys every piece of technology he touches (Jack Whitehall); the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; and a Metatron (voiced by Derek Jacobi). Jon Hamm plays the archangel Gabriel, a preening, violet-eyed CEO with a joyless smile and a tight cream turtleneck.

It’s a kind of storytelling so maximal that the same 57-minute episode can contain a tangential alien invasion and a physics lesson explaining how angels and demons can shrink and grow in size (featuring multiple Sheens dancing the gavotte and multiple Tennants getting down to disco). The blessing of the streaming-TV era is that Gaiman seems to have been given the go-ahead to manifest literally anything; the curse is that the story itself is better suited to a two-hour movie than a meandering six-hour trip through time and space. It takes an awful lot to make Armageddon feel anticlimactic, and yet, after the travails everyone in Good Omens has endured through millennia, things conclude with what feels awfully like a whimper. Even the Four Horsemen, whose actors include Mireille Enos and Brian Cox, can’t live up to the hype that precedes them.

For a story about the actual end of the world, the stakes slump casually on the ground among the mortals. Good Omens is frivolous in tone to the point of being glib, while its recurring jokes recur so often that they run out their welcome (Crowley gets scenes scored to virtually every track in the Queen songbook, while Aziraphale’s story lines frequently feature his obsession with eating). What sets the series apart is the relationship between two polar opposites who end up realizing, as the best antagonists do, that they’re not that different after all. The funniest moments in their history—such as Crowley hopping over consecrated ground to save his friend like a person walking barefoot on hot sand—are also the most endearing. If everything else feels decidedly extraneous, it’s mostly worth it to see two such estimable actors having such a lovely doomsday.