Home Theatre: An angel, a demon, and the end of the world as they know it
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the streaming platforms around you, and this week it's Good Omens, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video
My last few selections for this column have perhaps been a tad too heavy vis-à-vis the subjects/themes. So, this week, I've chosen something rather lighthearted. The series in question does not deal with anything too serious — just the end of the world aka the Apocalypse. It's Good Omens, of course — the long-gestating screen adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's novel of the same name. It was originally meant to be adapted by Terry Gilliam (and what a brilliant version that would have been!) but funding issues hindered it. There were other attempts but none materialised, and after Pratchett's death, Gaiman is said to have given up the idea, until he got a letter from his co-author, delivered post-mortem, asking him to complete the project.
And so, we finally get to see Crowley and Aziraphale on screen, almost 30 years after the book's publication. The casting for these two characters couldn't be more inspired. David Tennant as the demon Crowley and Michael Sheen as the angel Aziraphale are note-perfect and their sizzling chemistry is what really makes this series. Tennant does, at times, remind us of his other iconic character, The Doctor from Doctor Who, but it works because the two do share some similarities — eccentric, morally ambiguous, humanoid non-humans, who love the earth and its ways, despite not being of it.
The book deals with the days leading up to the Apocalypse, and the efforts of Crowley and Aziraphale to thwart it. But they are not the main characters. It is the Apocalypse after all, and thus the Antichrist plays quite a big role, as do the Four Horsemen — Death, War, Famine, and Pollution (who has taken over from Pestilence after the invention of Penicillin). The series changes things around a bit, giving the starring role to the angel and the demon, which is probably a smart move given the aforementioned strong casting for those characters. So we get extra sequences expanding on the relationship of Crowley and Aziraphale over the ages and a lot of overt bromance, including an entire breakup scene and another a little later to the tune of Queen's Somebody to Love (props for all the carefully chosen Queen songs in the soundtrack, by the way — Bicycle Race had me cracking up). Some of these additional scenes are quite effective, while others fall a bit flat. But the chemistry between Tennant and Sheen, and their screen presence, makes even the weaker ones worth watching.
There are other changes as well. There's a bit of an update needed naturally to set things in today's world. Mobile phones, selfies, and the Internet all feature, with the mobiles in particular used very effectively to show how in with the times Crowley is as opposed to his counterpart, who is a bit behind on such matters. One of the early show-only jokes also builds nicely on Crowley's tying up of mobile phone networks. Another thing the show does well is the baby-swapping scene. It actually uses the fact of Arthur Young telling Crowley his wife's room number, to carry out the three-card trick, unlike the book.
Other updates are of the woke variety (God is a woman, one of the Horsemen is genderqueer, there's more diversity in the cast than you'd expect) and a bit obviously so perhaps, but better this than the reverse. There's also a bit more Americanisation than is strictly necessary (one of the characters is turned into an American, an analogy about Trafalgar Square is changed into one about Times Square). Perhaps this is meant to make it accessible to international audiences who are likely more familiar with US-centric stories.
Pratchett and Gaiman have said about the book that the former wrote most of the Adam (the Antichrist) parts as well as Agnes Nutter's bits, while the latter did the Four Horsemen. Pratchett also apparently had more influence on the end, while the beginning was more Gaiman. This sort of shows in the series, which is written only by Gaiman. It begins quite strongly and tapers off a bit. The Adam and the Them parts are quite weak too, which is a shame because those are some of the best parts in the book — especially the way Adam's change of heart comes about. It feels less earned and too simplistic here. By the same logic though, the Four Horsemen, being Gaiman's work in the book, ought to work in the series. But sadly, a mix of not-so-good casting and having to make way for more Crowley/Aziraphale lets them down. I found myself particularly disappointed with the treatment of Death, a personal favourite across the Discworld novels. He's just so underwhelming, and the subtitlers really missed a trick by not capitalising his dialogue.
The show's end is not wholly satisfying like the book, but I did enjoy the extra Crowley/Aziraphale portions there too. And that's when it hit me. This is less Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch and more Good Omens: The story of the end of the world, told from the point of view of an angel and a demon. From that perspective, it does work quite well. Not as good as the book, but hey, isn't that always true?
(Good Omens is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video)