Release Date: May 31, 2019
It’s become increasingly clear that books, especially fantasy books, make far better TV shows or mini-series than they do movies. Books have no real run-time, only a page count, and that doesn’t translate well into a 2.5- or 3-hour movie unless you happen to have a perfectly in sync team of writer, director, production, and cast (which doesn’t often happen.) But 6 hours in a TV mini-series? That was the perfect length to capture the novel Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. The love, care, and craft that went into bringing Good Omens to the screen is omnipresent. It really is the closest thing I’ve seen to a perfect adaptation.
While I enjoy the work of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, I’ve read comparatively little of it. I’ve read the books featuring Death in Terry’s Discworld series and a random assortment of Neil Gaiman’s catalog, namely Neverwhere, Coraline, the first two Sandman comic book collections, and most recently The Graveyard Book. Then, around mid-May, I had the opportunity and great pleasure to see Neil Gaiman speak in person. When he mentioned that Good Omens was going to be released on Amazon Prime at the end of the month, I was intrigued. So I finally went to my local library, borrowed a copy of Good Omens, and read it in about two days.
I liked the book, but I did not love it. I could see bits that were clearly in Neil’s voice and bits that were clearly in Terry’s voice, but the parts that worked best for me where the ones where I couldn’t tell which was which, the parts that blended their voices. It’s quintessentially British in a way that this American reader couldn’t quite break into; I felt like there was a lot of humor that went over my head. I smiled many times while reading it, but rarely laughed. The various asides and digressions into secondary characters were sometimes interesting but more often than not threw off the rhythm of the novel and left me frustrated that we weren’t spending more time with the characters I really cared about, namely the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley.
I don’t think Good Omens is a bad or poorly written book. It just wasn’t quite the book for me. I feel like if I’d discovered Good Omens in my late teens, early 20s, I would have fallen head over heels in love with it. But you aren’t the same person at 31 as you were at 21, and 31-year-old me just didn’t have the patience for all of the asides and shifting focus. My complaints are, I believe, purely a failure of me as a reader than of the book itself. Clearly it did something right, as there are many, many people who say it is there favorite book and love it (literally) to pieces. And I’m glad the book exists because without it, we never would have gotten this show!
The TV show took everything that I didn’t like or care for in the book and minimized or eliminated entirely. When I read the book, I didn’t care a great deal about many of the other characters. Anathema Device, Newt Pulsifer, Sergeant Shadwell, Madame Tracy, even Adam the Antichrist were not especially interesting to me. But in the show, I cared about all of them to some degree or other and saw how all of their story lines intersected in a way that didn’t come through for me in the book. I understood and enjoyed a lot more of the humor, and several sequences that were jumbled or opaque for me in the book were clear and funny in the show. For whatever reason, seeing it made it all connect and resonate in a real way. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy-style narration was an amusing touch, and I adored the Coraline/Sandman-esque opening sequence, which I watched every single time to look for characters I recognized. (I swear that Dream is in there somewhere…)
The TV show also delved deeper into the nuts and bolts of the world so we got to see more of how Heaven and Hell operate. I liked was how Heaven and Hell really were two sides of the same sadistic coin. Both follow strict rules, but the rules are different and any rule-breakers are severely punished. Both places are cold, although Heaven is sterile, bright, and clean while Hell is fetid, dark, and dirty. The fact that they are in the same building, just the penthouse vs. the basement was very telling. I like that both sides were shown to be just as bad as the other, neither one with humanity’s best interests at heart, concerned only with their eternal war. While demons actively try to destroy humanity, the angels of Heaven are often just as bad, allowing things like the Great Flood or the Apocalypse to happen because it’s in service to the “Great (but perhaps not the ‘Ineffable’) Plan.” Only Crowley and Aziraphale, for reasons both selfish and altruistic, care what happens to humanity and are willing to risk their immortal existence to stop Armageddon.
But best of all, we got to spend more time with the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley. (Michael Sheen and David Tennant were PERFECT in their roles; there really could not have been better casting.) The heart of the story revolves around the two of them and it is clear that they love each other. From the first moment on the wall of the Garden of Eden when Aziraphale shields Crowley from the rain with his wing, I was like, “These two belong together.” Everything throughout the show reinforces that connection as their relationship builds and develops, culminating in the closing song “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” (Heck, every person who sees them interacting in the show automatically assumes they are a couple! Crowley even calls Aziraphale “angel” the way someone would say, “honey,” “babe,” or “darling.”) Slash fiction aside, I don’t think their love based on carnal attraction the way that humans might think of it. After all, even if they are wearing simulacra to mimic human form, they aren’t human themselves, but incorporeal beings. But they have formed and built a connection based on affection and respect and care for one another’s well-being over centuries of interaction. What else can you call it but love?
I do wonder if at first maybe Crowley was just messing with Aziraphale, who is so easily flustered. I can see how it would be fun for a seductive demon like Crowley to discomfort a by-the-book angel like Aziraphale. But as time passed Crowley really started to care about this sweet, silly, angel and began getting Aziraphale out of trouble when he could. And I think that maybe Aziraphale was drawn to Crowley, first in the way a bird is fascinated by a snake, but that almost-morbid fascination changed to affection after seeing how Crowley cares about him and about humans. It’s easy to love Crowley since he is suave, sexy, and more openly skeptical of the “ineffable plan,” although I don’t think it’s fair that he often gets handed the dirty work simply because he’s a demon. (Remember, demons were once angels too.) But Aziraphale has some steel in his backbone. He seems weak and bumbling, but after going through all the proper channels, hoping his fellow angels will see reason, he does the entirely un-angelic things and disobeys orders to help save humanity and his best friend.
Their discussion about the holy water was especially touching. I legit started crying when Aziraphale gave Crowley the thermos and Crowley is just stunned for a moment and then says something like, “I’ll take you anywhere you want to go.” They are so human in their awkwardness of not putting a name on what they feel for each other, especially since they are supposed to be fundamental opposites. Angels and demons are not suppose to fraternize, let alone become friends. (I also really enjoyed the fact that the show explores the consequences of their respective Head Offices finding out about their friendship once the End of the World has been averted. That fallout was something that was lacking at the end of the book.)
It’s a lovely, funny, slow-burn odd couple kind of relationship and I loved every second they were on screen. Good Omens is a great TV mini-series, on that I think lovers of fantasy will enjoy whether or not you’ve read the book. My hat is off to Neil Gaiman, David Tennant, Michael Sheen, and everyone else who worked together to make this show a reality.
I think Sir Terry Pratchett would be proud of what you’ve accomplished.