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Amazon’s Good Omens Surrounds Two Strong Lead Performances with an Underwhelming Comedy

After more than two decades in various stages of development hell, Amazon’s Good Omens is a bittersweet realization of authors Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s long dream to bring the material to the screen (Pratchett died in 2016). With Gaiman at the helm (he serves as writer and show runner on the six-episode mini series), Good Omens is clearly a labor of love, a whimsical, darkly humorous adaptation of its equally endearing source material, a story of a rambunctious demon and an anxiety-ridden angel whose 6,000-year long friendship is tested when they try to thwart the holy apocalypse together.

Tennant and Sheen are definitely worth the price of admission – but Good Omens‘ tantalizing premise is never fully realized beyond those two characters, which makes for an extremely uneven experience.

The brilliance of the deeply imperfect comedy lies in its casting; the angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley are played by Martin Sheen and David Tennant, respectively, a dynamite pair who electrify every scene they’re in. The 28-minute pre-credit sequence of episode three, “Hard Times,” alone makes the entire six-episode run worth watching; Sheen and Tennant are absolutely delightful as Good Omens tracks their reluctant friendship through thousands of years of history, achieving a harmonious balance of plot and character the rest of the series often struggles to find.

Good Omens

Tennant and Sheen are so fucking good as the show’s core relationship, it’s hard for the rest of the series to keep up. There are dozens of characters and minor story lines that imitate the rhythms and cheeky dynamics of the show’s divine odd couple – but none are ever able to feel as compelling, or in most cases, just feel like inessential filler. Given the premises of some of these stories – the childhood of the Antichrist, the politics of heaven and hell’s bureaucracies, a witch who is the descendant of history’s most accurate (and specific) prophet – one might think there’s a plethora of interesting material for Good Omens to explore its wonderfully absurd central plots.

Yet all of these stories always feel lacking; the desire to build out a huge secondary cast of defined characters is clearly felt, but anytime Sheen and/or Tennant are missing, it’s hard for Good Omens to find its footing, especially as a series of inserted note cards keep reminding the audience how imminent the end of the world is. Smaller stories, like a failed computer engineer becoming a witch hunter, or the vague Stranger Things undertones of the young Antichrist’s friendships, lack in the comedic flair of the show’s central pair, trying to justify their existence in the narrative in just about every scene.

At its core, Good Omens is a comedy of errors: just about every plot point hinges on the coincidental ironies, breathing life into the inherent absurdity of all of heaven and hell mistaking the Antichrist’s identity, all because a Satanic nun fucked up the most important part of he plan to initiate a final holy war between the righteous angels and their fallen brethren (with the end of civilization serving as the final call to arms). The conflict between coincidence and destiny gives great life to the story of Good Omens; unfortunately, the characters in most of the smaller explorations of this feel weightless as result.

Good Omens

Take the character of Anathema Device; played by a criminally underutilized Adria Arjona, Anathema serves as the de facto guide to the prophetic book of her ancestor (Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, which the original novel shares the same title of). At first a whimsical story of a young woman swept into the world of her family’s cryptic knowledge of the future, Good Omens slowly tries to shift her character into something more meaningful in the show’s second half, a woman trapped by her family’s legacy, in a neat parallel to the situations Aziraphale and Crowley find themselves in.

But Anathema’s story never gets off the ground; her place at the end of the series makes for a laughably inert, stunted character arc (not to mention that as soon as a human man enters the scene, her ancestor’s prophecies further trap her into a sterilized presence as a romantic object). It’s a byproduct of the show’s adherence to its source material, and the strange choice to adapt the book, rich in mythology and humorous moments, into just six episodes. Anathema’s arc never has room to flourish; by the time she gets integrated into the larger, central plot of the show, Good Omens has too many other priorities to make her story satisfying (and in fact, becomes the single most disappointing part of the series).

The Antichrist’s story follows the same path: Good Omens is ostensibly a story about the concept of good vs. evil, and how idiotic it is to assume anyone could whole heartedly follow either path. Sure, the both sides-ism of “good people are bad, too!” is not exactly eye opening (and in this day and age, plays more like abject defeatism), but it is a comedically fertile ground for a series with such an existential setting. However, the 11-year old Antichrist never really captures this; his turn to evil is less than organic, wholeheartedly embracing the evil potential of his newfound powers when he decides to become a deified environmentalist. You can see the structure of the arc, but with so much attention being paid to so many characters in such a short time frame, the heel turn of the Antichrist is underdeveloped (having child actors trying to capture this emotionally complex journey only compounds this problem), and saps a lot of the dramatic energy from the room as Good Omens lurches uncomfortably into its final act.

Good Omens

The show’s length is really its biggest issue: all six episodes are over 50-minutes long, which makes the series both too short (in terms of its overall length) and too long: had this been a, say, 10-episode series of 40-minute episodes, it would be a much more rounded series. Also, Gaiman’s desire to include material originally considered for the book’s sequel only further disrupts the pacing of the series, just another series of under cooked plots for Good Omens to try and contend with during its brief running time. Rather than excising characters that feel completely perfunctory to the proceedings (Sergeant Shadwell, the various creatures of Hell vaguely threatening Crowley throughout), Good Omens only piles more new characters on top, a classic example of “big eyes, smaller stomach” the show’s final two episodes undoubtedly suffer from.

And yet, there’s something undeniably charming about the whole endearingly low budget affair, a deep, fantastic cast of actors clearly enamored with the material on the page. How that material translates into a six-hour story, however, is a bit more unwieldy and unsatisfying, a bunch of under developed characters and stories mushed together to form a lumpy, inelegant conclusion (one that unnecessarily leaves the door open for a second season of misadventure). Tennant and Sheen are definitely worth the price of admission – but the show’s tantalizing premise is never fully realized beyond those two characters, which makes for an extremely uneven experience.

 

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Jon Hamm and Nick Offerman both feature in small roles; I particularly wish the latter was better developed, as the US senator originally designated by the demons of hell to be the father of Satan’s child.
  • There are a few nods to Terry Pratchett through the series, from the Sargeant wearing his signature hat, and as the only person to top Death on a video game high score leader board (among others).
  • the 28-minute opening sequence of episode three is far and away the best part of the entire series, so much so that when the opening credits roll, it feels like the series could’ve ended there.
  • the biggest bummer of the series is the presence of the Four Horseman: with Mirelle Enos as War and Brian Cox voicing Death, the potential for these characters was enormous; it ends up a massively wasted opportunity, each of the four members offered but a scene or two to define their presence before the season’s climatic moments.
  • The show’s best side plot is a divinely tasked UPS worker, who delivers holy weapons and messages between the various entities enacting the end of the world. It’s a fantastic, unexpected bit of brevity in a big, silly series.

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