The book version of Good Omens occupies an odd place in my personal pantheon. I have great fondness for it, yet even at the time I first read it (sometime in the mid-90s), I wasn’t convinced it all came together that well. Like some of the middle volumes in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, a lot of the page count is taken up with seemingly pointless diversions that aren’t nearly as amusing as they were intended to be. There are whole sections of the plot that you could cut from Good Omens, and the result would probably be a better, more focused narrative.
Here’s the unfortunate thing: the TV miniseries repeats all the mistakes of the book version, practically word-for-word. Pretty much everything about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is completely superfluous, and a lot of the minor characters seem like they got lost on the way to one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. The series didn’t need six episodes; it could have worked as a two-parter, or perhaps a movie.
And yet, I can’t be all that disappointed that the show made these mistakes, because they were made for reasons that resonate with the themes of the show. Writer Neil Gaiman kept these questionable elements out of respect to the late Terry Pratchett, out of the humanistic belief that human creativity is as close as we get to the divine, and thus a well-edited adaptation, while narratively superior, would be in some sense…ungodly. Gaiman was too busy living by the moral code he and his coauthor developed in the book to make a perfect adaptation of said book, and I for one am far too impressed by that on a meta-level to be that concerned over whether this thing is going to win any Emmys for scriptwriting.
I realize that whole last paragraph may not make any sense whatsoever to many readers, so let’s take a step back and do some more traditional review-type behavior. Then hopefully by the end I can explain what exactly I mean by Good Omens having it’s own kind of moral code.
The Good: Azriphale and Crowley
Michael Sheen and David Tennant are perfectly cast as Aziraphale and Crowley, the angel-and-demon pair who seek to circumvent the apocalypse. At first I thought that Tennant’s Crowley was by far the more important of the two, and to be fair, Crowley gets most of the show’s most important lines. However, Sheen’s non-verbal acting is deceptively important to the story. While Crowley is skeptical of everyone, even his own “side” (the demons), Aziriphale is a True Believer in heaven; if he weren’t, he would have already fallen. Aziraphale thinks of himself as too good of a fellow to ever be a demon, so he has to maintain a naive belief that heaven is unilaterally good, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
However, Aziraphale’s beliefs are sorely tested by God going Old Testament on humanity, as he does: allowing children to drown in the Flood, sitting back and doing nothing as various horrors are visited on Earth, etc. You can see the cognitive dissonance in Sheen’s performance; he knows that some of the things that God (and the heavenly bureaucracy) do really are not good, but he can’t allow himself to probe that thread too deeply, because then his whole identity goes out the window. By the end of the series, he’s asking enough inconvenient questions that he really should be a demon; if they make a Good Omens Season 2* and Aziraphale doesn’t switch teams, I’m calling shenanigans.
Clearly, Aziraphale is the one with the stronger narrative arc; he goes from believer to skeptic, whereas Crowley appears to have been a skeptic from the moment the Almighty uttered “Let there be light.” However, Crowley is usually more interesting to watch due to David Tennant’s bizarre magnetism. Tennant can go very broad, too broad for some viewers, but his performance fits when the material is broad in a complementary way. Like Doctor Who**, Good Omens also deals with the nature of morality in a universe with a supreme being, just from a slightly different angle, so it’s a good use of Tennant’s talent.
Given that one is an angel and one is a demon (complete with color-coded wings), we’re primed for conflicts between Aziraphale and Crowley to be clashes between good and evil. But that’s not what we get. Fortunately, we don’t get the opposite of that either, ex. “The Demons are really the good guys!” because that would be banal. Instead we get a conflict that isn’t really based on good and evil at all, but rather self-deception versus self-acceptance, and similarly muddy concepts.
What, you don’t think self-deception is a muddy idea on a moral scale? Lying to yourself about who you are is bad, but from another angle, you have to lie to yourself if you ever want to be better than you are. That’s what Aziraphale does: he’s not filled with unconditional love (he certainly doesn’t have unconditional love for God, whatever he says about it), but he pretends he is so he can better act the part. Crowley is more honest about himself, which is a good quality on the surface, but it means he’s free to indulge the worst aspects of his nature, because he has no incentive to try to hide them. Lying is bad, except when it’s good.
I think it’s really about how trying to define yourself as evil or good can’t help but have a paradoxical effect: if you try to be good, you have to maintain lies about yourself that are shameful on some level, and if you try to be bad, you’re engaging in a dialogue with the world about your desires that is praiseworthy by virtue of its naked honesty. You could try to be neither, but I think Good Omens is skeptical of being too skeptical. Then you’re like Anathema Device, watching events play out from afar while rarely participating, and that’s not a good lifestyle; note that she rejects it by the end.
All that, and just watching Sheen and Tennant interact is a bloody good time.
*I actually hope they don’t make Season 2 because it doesn’t seem necessary. I’m just saying that if they were to continue the story, it seems inevitable that Aziraphale would join Crowley as a demon. Or, to put it a different way, “The only thing separating Aziraphale from the bowels of hell was time.”
**If you’ve watched Doctor Who and you don’t think that the Doctor is supposed to be God (or at least a stand-in doing God’s job as an adjunct until he completes his PhD), I have no idea what to say to you.
The Bad: Too Much Apocalyptic Nonsense
None of these people need to be here.
Some of the supporting characters are necessary, because you can’t have Crowley hiding in his answering machine if he’s not running from someone. However, the show didn’t need the Witchfinders, the Horsemen, or even Adam’s friends. In fact, if Adam’s friends had been excised from the adaptation, then we could have seen more of Adam’s relationship with his human father, Adam Young, which you’d think would have been more important.
The device of the postman rounding up the Horseman of the Apocalypse is cute, but it’s so self-consciously cute that I actually found it kind of annoying. Like, “here, look at this clever framing device, isn’t it so cheeky and on the nose?” and it seems like it all works brilliantly until you remember that the characters he’s summoning never do anything that a janitor named Bob could not have done. Really, one of the demons could have just possessed a janitor at the base and made him start launching nukes and the whole apocalypse plan would have worked just as well.
Cutting the story down as much as possible may not have been the way to go; the Archangel Gabriel, in particular, was a welcome addition. But when you have more characters than the story really needs, doing plot non-critical stuff, it calls attention to the fact that you have a lot of people running around in very silly prosthetics being ridiculous, which is not what you’re supposed to be thinking about. This could very well be the result of a clash between Terry Pratchett’s style and Neil Gaiman’s. In Discworld, people running around and looking/acting ridiculous is always mission-critical, whereas Gaiman’s oeuvre is different; not that he’s never ridiculous, but he holds that element at arm’s length, from what I’ve read of his work.
Nowhere do we see a better example of Pratchett’s characters imprisoned in Gaiman’s world than the Horseman Death; such a delight on the Disc whenever he appears, here he has nothing to do except make a joke about Elvis…which is only alluded to in the adaptation, not even stated.
Then again, it’s a good thing that Death is standing around with not much to do. The version of the story where Death is very busy would be much less interesting.
The Divine: Pratchett’s Legacy
Sir Pterry, forever.
We’re talking about a TV adaptation here, but Good Omens is fundamentally about books, and I’m far from the first to make this observation. It’s about the form of the book, gleefully paraded around with all the footnotes you could possibly want, and it’s about the unknowable true nature of books. Anathema’s desire to puzzle out the meanings of her omniscient ancestor parallel the desire of humans to understand the meaning of the Bible. It’s about the frustration of never fully understanding a book.
To get back to what I was talking about at the beginning, cutting aspects of Terry Pratchett’s work for the sake of an adaptation would have been anathema (not-really-a-pun intended) to Gaiman. Since Terry Pratchett is gone, all we have left of him are his books, jut as all we have left of most of humanity are the ideas they left behind. To cut down his ideas, even his failures, would have put less of him in the adaptation. Gaiman wanted the TV adaptation of the book to do what all human art does– to bear witness to life that once was– more than he wanted it to be good. Sometimes, it isn’t good. But it was always going to be an adaptation to another medium of a story that was primarily about its medium, so trying to be good might have been a lost cause anyway.
I don’t want to get in the habit of giving out awards for narrative mistakes. I don’t want to hear frequent claims of “Oh it may be sloppily written, but it has tremendous meaning in a larger context that transcends your pedestrian notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad.'” I mean, in general, I want to nip that sort of thinking in the bud. Something can be meaningful and good at the same time, and usually, that’s preferable. But I think, just this once, I’m okay with it.