Inside Neil Gaiman's overstuffed "Good Omens" series is a magical comedy trying to get out

David Tennant and Michael Sheen are fantastic as a demon and angel in Amazon's fable about the end of the world

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 28, 2019 4:00PM (EDT)

"Good Omens" (Chris Raphael)
"Good Omens" (Chris Raphael)

Somewhere inside of Amazon's "Good Omens" lurks a delightful movie — or at the very least, a decent one. You glimpse the outline of it by the middle of the third hour, about halfway through the six-episode run.

That is the point at which it may occur to you that there's about 50% too much content distracting from the core strength of Neil Gaiman's latest series: the glorious onscreen chemistry shared by David Tennant ("Doctor  Who") and Michael Sheen ("The Good Fight").

That Tennant and Sheen are outstanding together is no shocker. Separately each crackles with a galvanic presence. Put them together as an angel and a demon and the only way to describe it, cliché though it may be, is magical. Not divine — magical.

"Good Omens," debuting Friday for Amazon Prime subscribers, sparkles with a fair share of that wonder, that much is incontrovertible. Gaiman's story, based on the book he co-wrote with the late Terry Pratchett titled "Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch," dances with the same kind of frothy, tongue-in-cheek liveliness that propels the series.

And at its best moments "Good Omens" invites the viewer to fantasize about what could have been if it had been written as series of closed-ended adventures inspired by the odd partnership between Sheen's angel Aziraphale and Tennant's demon Crowley, two players from opposing teams in the eternal struggle between God and Satan.

Instead, it mires Aziraphale and Crowley in a curious case of a tale bogged down by too much of, well, everything. Their trip begins with a bungled assignment as they inadvertently fail to prevent the end of the world by misplacing the Antichrist – or, rather, placing their attention on the figure they believe to be the Antichrist. This sounds more pressing than "Good Omens" makes it out to be for about two hours — the equivalent of a feature length film.

Within that span "Good Omens" natters its way through a number of plot threads in which we witness a farcical baby switch, mostly there to justify a cameo by Nick Offerman and giving recognizable British character actor Daniel Mays something to do. We also meet our son of Satan, a nice boy named Adam (Sam Taylor Buck) who grows up in an unassuming village in the British countryside while Aziraphale and Crowley play the angel and devil on the shoulders of a diplomat's son who, aside from his privileged parentage, is otherwise unremarkable.

Mostly, though, the first half of "Good Omens" establishes the role of other Earthly players, mainly the descendants of Agnes Nutter, including the fantastically named Anathema Device (Adria Arjona), and those of witchhunter Thou-Shalt-Not-Commit-Adultery-Pulsifer, represented by a useless twenty-something called Newton (Jack Whitehall).

It also grants screen time to Michael McKean and Miranda Richardson who, like Voice of God Frances McDormand, appear mostly give Amazon Studios some high-powered celebrity shine. Jon Hamm has a more noteworthy presence as the angel Gabriel, whom he plays as a smiling goofball in a dove grey suit who merely insists Heaven's rules be followed.

Only after we spend some concentrated time with Tennant's preening, goofy Crowley and Sheen's rule-abiding if naïve Aziraphale in the third episode, where we're made understand the oaken fortitude of their bond, does "Good Omens" make the case for its continued existence. And it does so not by validating the worth of humanity as much as the value of Earth as a stage for the pair to play upon.

Sometimes Aziraphale pops up in direct service of good and comes across Crowley and the pair wonders what their respective roles are in a master plan that appears to be guided by bureaucracy.  They shrug and go on, or get one another out of scrapes, or do each other's homework, just for kicks.

Aziraphale, a neat and lawful creature, loves the finer things humanity has to offer, such as tasty cuisine and rare books. Crowley is a fan of mischief and fashion and artsy rock. They're great together, in other words. They'd be brilliant at the heart of their own buddy comedy. (Not this one,  but, you know, something.)

According to development lore, "Good Omens" was supposed to have been a movie, hence that nagging feeling mentioned above. Reportedly it was being developed as a TV series back in 2011 by none other than Monty Python alumnus Terry Jones, and perhaps that lineage receives a tip-of-the-hat in some of this series' keenly absurdist moments.

Even without knowledge of these details, "Good Omens" comes across as less of its own distinct enterprise than one reminiscent of other British genre fare created by the likes of Terry Gilliam or Douglas Adams.

Some amount of that is unavoidable, but I submit that should not occur in a series based upon the work of two artists as singular as Pratchett and Gaiman — and it might not have if the narrative weren't quadruple-dipped in layers of sugary stylistic vamping.

Another factor that doesn't help "Good Omens" is that other shows play with the conflict between Heaven and Hell with far more excitement and drama and more even character development. There's room for any number of examinations of Judeo-Christian mythos, of course, but a series operating with prestige-level aspirations, one that boasts an A-list cast, should do a better job of telling its story than "Supernatural" or "Preacher."

The latter has plenty of flaws at this point in its run, I'll grant you, but never in either's show's run is there a moment of doubt as to the seriousness of its dramatic stakes. Whereas in "Good Omens" the end of the world doesn't become a pressing concern until it's halfway done.

Having said that, Douglas Mackinnon's direction grants every scene an effervescent humor, even when the series ventures into the dark, cramped hallways of Hell or floats us to a sterile, minimalist Heaven where stoic, by-the-book angels gaze down upon humanity as judgment day looms and simply shrug.

The cinematography and effects carry "Good Omens" through its numerous meanderings and shortcomings. There's no shortage of eye candy and the saturated colors make the scenery pop. It's as if the visuals are there to remind viewers that despite all of its sadness and injustice Earth is still something of a paradise worth saving, with Sheen and Tennant selling that notion by having all the fun in the world with their performances.  "Good Omens" could have been an excellent fable had it sliced its marathon preamble to The End in half, at least.

Alas, you may find yourself dying to get it over with before the excitement actually begins.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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