All the right ingredients are present for Good Omens to work marvelously. It’s based on a very funny 1990 book by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, with Gaiman writing the teleplay for the six-episode series, which is a co-production between the BBC and Amazon. Its Pythonesque tale of the apocalypse, as seen from the perspective of an angel and demon, has ample room for fang-toothed satire and imaginative visuals. And its cast includes Michael Sheen, David Tennant, Jon Hamm, Michael McKean, Miranda Richardson, and Frances McDormand as the voice of God.
It sounds brilliant, but good performances from Sheen and Tennant aside, Good Omens is a disjointed slog, with ugly special effects, useless peripheral characters, and—despite a plot hinging on stopping the literal end of the world—no palpable sense of urgency.
Even so, it’s a bit of a puzzle as to why everything falls so flat. Sheen, as the polite, uptight angel Aziraphale, finds crevices in a two-dimensional character to inject a subtle likeability; Tennant, as the not-particularly-evil demon Crowley, doesn’t need to do much more than wear cat’s-eye contact lenses and swagger lasciviously to be captivating. When Good Omens focuses on the pair—and their cautious friendship, as it blossoms over the course of a few millennia—it almost hangs together. (One of the hour-long episodes spends a chunk of its runtime on an assortment of capers the two get involved in throughout the ages, suggesting a history-hopscotching episodic series about a bickering angel and demon could work uproariously well. Good Omens is not that show.)
The rest of the cast is a bust. Hamm is in full-smarm mode (his worst mode), McKean is pinioned by an unnatural-sounding Scottish accent (the character’s a dud as well), Richardson is criminally underused (as always), and McDormand’s narration is flat and ineffective (believe me, I’m as shocked as you are). Furthermore, big chunks of the show are devoted two irritating subplots: One follows a bland, 11-year-old Antichrist and his group of plucky pals (none of the kid stuff remotely works), while the other focuses on the budding, boring romance between the descendant of a prophesying witch (Adria Arjona) and the descendent of the witchfinder who burned her (Jack Whitehall). These parts of Good Omens—and they are substantial—are pretty painful.
Some of the other shortcomings might’ve been the unavoidable result of committing the book’s wild narrative to a budget-restricted television show. We get to see the Garden of Eden, the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the city of Atlantis, and Satan himself—but it all comes across as underwhelmingly chintzy.
But the biggest problem is that Good Omens’ ideas feel like they’ve been neutered—either by literalizing them within a fixed visual medium, or perhaps by the passage of time itself. Maybe the world has changed enough in the past 29 years for a goofy piss-take on the Book of Revelation to seem harmlessly quaint, rather than the edgy religious satire the novel hinted at. (The fact that we’re facing a very real apocalypse in the form of catastrophic climate change also takes some of the sting out.) Whatever the case may be, there’s almost nothing dangerous in this Good Omens, and nothing that examines the angelic and demonic impulses within us all.
All six episodes of Good Omens begin streaming tomorrow, May 31, on Amazon Prime.