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Good Omens Series-Premiere Recap: Apocalypse Now?

Good Omens

In The Beginning
Season 1 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating *****

Good Omens

In The Beginning
Season 1 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: Amazon Studios

Welcome to the end of the world! Or something close to it, anyway. We’ll get there eventually. Probably. Well, maybe. Though Good Omens is mostly set a few days before the apocalypse, there will certainly be digressions along the way: long flashbacks, informative asides, strange cosmologies explained at length, etc. This being a six-part adaptation of Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, a 1990 novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, it would be strange if it did behave like a normal miniseries traveling in a straight line from one point to the next.

Certainly, the series didn’t follow a conventional route to television. In the early aughts, it was apparently this close to being a Terry Gilliam film. In the early ’10s, rumors floated that another former member of Monty Python, Terry Jones, would co-write a Good Omens TV series. For a while, it looked as if it might not happen at all: Gaiman seemed uninterested in working on the project without Pratchett, who died in 2015. But a letter Pratchett arranged to be sent after his death changed Gaiman’s mind, in a fitting twist for a project so concerned with matters of life and death and who’s up there (and down there) pulling the strings. Hence the series at hand, scripted and executive produced by Gaiman with each episode directed by Douglas Mackinnon.

This first episode begins, appropriately enough, at the beginning, with no less than the voice of God (provided by Frances McDormand) laying out various human theories about the origins of the universe — including one by Irish archbishop James Ussher, who claimed the beginnings of time could be traced back to October 21, 4004 B.C. at 9 a.m. (Ussher was a real figure and did publish such a theory, though Good Omens takes some liberties with the date.) As it turns out, Ussher got it right, apart from being 13 minutes off with the time. Dinosaurs and such? That was all a joke. Turns out God has a playful, if incomprehensible, sense of humor.

Rolling all this out against swirling graphics, Good Omens asks viewers not to take it, or the apocalypse, too seriously. But it would be a mistake to take it as just a lark. A humanist raised in the Church of England, Pratchett had a long, irreverent interest in gods and belief systems. Born to a Jewish family that practiced Scientology and educated in Anglican schools, Gaiman conveys in his work an even more intense fascination with religion and mythology. (Look no further than American Gods, currently playing on another network, for additional proof.) So it’s worth paying attention to the way the series’ version of the creation myth varies from the traditional story. Here we get an Adam, an Eve, a garden, some forbidden fruit, and a serpent, but we also get a couple of additional characters and some other details with lasting consequences: The serpent is another form of a demon named Crawly (later Crowley, played by David Tennant), who spends the first moments after the fall chatting with an angel named Aziraphale (Michael Sheen), who has taken the liberty of giving Adam and Eve a flaming sword.

The most significant additions go beyond these creative liberties, however. Aziraphale and Crowley both wonder if they’ve made mistakes. After all, Aziraphale worries, that flaming sword might break a bit with the whole spirit of being cast out of paradise. For his part, Crowley can’t quite fathom what’s so bad about knowing the difference between right and wrong in the first place or why it angered God so much. “Bit of an overreaction if you ask me,” he chuckles, in a line that typifies the droll understatement permeating Aziraphale and Crowley’s interactions even as they stare down the end of the world.

Flash forward a few thousand years or so, and we’re only 11 years out from the apocalypse. Crowley and Aziraphale have settled into their respective angelic and demonic grooves, but those grooves intersect more often than either of their bosses might be comfortable with if they knew. And both share an appreciation for earthly things. Wearing dark sunglasses and a Keith Richards slouch, Crowley enjoys fast cars, loud music, and a good drink. Aziraphale enjoys running an antique-books shop and eating sushi, much to the puzzlement of his supervisor, Gabriel (Jon Hamm), who finds the notion of consuming food beneath him. And neither Aziraphale nor Crowley is particularly interested in seeing his good times on Earth come to an end.

Those in charge have other plans: Crowley is told to deliver the infant Antichrist to a satanic convent, and he’ll then be given to the family of an American diplomat (in one of several nods to The Omen). This gets a bit bungled, however, due to some human error that leaves the little devil in the arms of the Youngs, an unassuming English couple who name him Adam. That makes the presumed Antichrist, a.k.a. Warlock, given to the diplomat the focus of Aziraphale and Crowley’s attentions as they try to short-circuit his (presumed) satanic tendencies. As for the diplomat’s actual son, God tells us not to think too hard about what happened to the “surplus” baby, but it would be “nice” to think he went on to live a long, happy life. After all, who can say for sure? (Well, God, but She’s not saying any more than She has to.)

That bit of Edward Gorey–esque humor — see also the opening credits — can serve as a litmus test for prospective viewers. If you’re not turned off by the long setup likening these babies to cards in a game of three-card monte or the dry black humor that sends one baby off to an unknown (but likely grisly) fate, you’ll probably be up for the rest of a series that treats Armageddon like a cosmic goof but takes the philosophical implications of that goofery seriously. (And one in which Gaiman has free rein to include all the digressions and flourishes he likes.) Where is the moral justice in a universe pushed and pulled by the whims of divine beings? What is so wrong about knowing right from wrong, and why would God spend millennia punishing us for trying to find out? And is a Heaven without Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and all of the Bachs a place you’d really want to spend eternity (especially if the alternative is The Sound of Music soundtrack on repeat)? “The great plan is ineffable,” Aziraphale assures Crowley. But is there really any difference between an ineffable plan and no plan at all?

Maybe, Aziraphale and Crowley figure, there’s a third way. And after dressing up in silly costumes to try to keep the kid they believe is the Antichrist in a kind of moral stalemate — a fun opportunity for Tennant and Sheen to go to Alec Guinness–in–Kind Hearts and Coronets–like extremes — they realize their mistake when the Armageddon-signaling Hellhound fails to show at Warlock’s birthday party. As for the right kid, he seems … just fine, really. A pretty nice kid who enjoys hanging out in the woods with his three closest friends (Pepper, Brian, and Wensleydale, collectively known as “the Them”), Adam (Sam Taylor Buck) mostly just wants a dog for his birthday. A fun little dog he’ll just call Dog. Hearing this, the Hellhound obliges, and with a wag of his tail, the end of the world draws a little closer. Again: maybe. It may not be far away chronologically, but, like its protagonists, this story doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to get there.

Welcome to the End-Time

• Good Omens can work only with the right leads, so cheers to bringing in Sheen and Tennant, two actors who know how to make a three-course meal out of understated dialogue and cosmic absurdity. Tennant is terrific fun playing Crowley as an aging rock star, and Sheen’s (literally) too-pure-for-this-world take on Aziraphale gives Tennant the perfect foil. That Sheen can do such sweet, nervous, delicate work here while spitting up scenery on The Good Fight confirms his extraordinary range. (Aziraphale’s enthusiastic but incompetent attempts at magic — not real magic, the sleight-of-hand kind — are particularly fun.) But the pair’s chemistry is what really puts the show over. This episode goes to some silly extremes, but the friendship of these characters keeps it grounded. It might be hard to care about the end of the world when it’s presented so comedically, but it’s easy to care that these two stay pals and find some kind of happiness even with all the upheaval.

• It’s worth noting that Gaiman has cited Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams as an important influence, and a book about Adams was among Gaiman’s first works. You can sense that influence in Good Omens’ love of mixing real facts with absurd inventions, its dry tone, and the way it suggests that human absurdity exists even in the furthest reaches of the cosmos and may even be the engine that drives the universe. (Gaiman’s early work also includes a quickie biography of Duran Duran, but that seems less relevant here.)

• Apart from the stars, Hamm and Nick Offerman are the most recognizable names in the first episode’s credits. That will change with upcoming installments. This is apparently one of those projects that had no trouble signing up guest stars.

Good Omens Series-Premiere Recap: Apocalypse Now?