Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and Crowley (David Tennant) are life partners—“life,” in this instance, constituting the entirety of Earth’s existence. An angel and a demon, respectively, tasked with serving as their divine dominions’ planetary representatives, Aziraphale and Crowley are opposites—the former a dapper “southern pansy” dressed in white old-world suits, and the latter a devil-may-care ne’er-do-well decked out in stylish black nightclub attire. They’re the oddest couple in the history of creation, and as brilliantly embodied by Sheen and Tennant, they’re the supernatural engine that powers Amazon’s sterling new miniseries Good Omens.
Based on Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s cult 1990 novel, which many have unsuccessfully tried to bring to the screen—including Terry Gilliam, who always seemed an ideal fit for the material—Good Omens, premiering May 31, is a rollicking and righteous saga that stays true to its zippy source. Credit for that, first and foremost, goes to Gaiman himself, who penned the entirety of this six-part TV version (his writing partner, Pratchett, passed away in March 2015). Doing able justice to his original, Gaiman manages the not-inconsiderable feat of capturing his narrative’s race-against-the-clock propulsion, all while making plenty of time for an overstuffed cast of characters and numerous detours, rewinds, asides and demented flights of fancy.
Good Omens boasts an assured sense of tone from the very start, when God (voiced, with wry detachment, by narrator Frances McDormand) lays out the origins of the universe, which apparently came into being 14 billion years ago, at 9:13 a.m. For that intro sequence, director Douglas Mackinnon sends viewers hurtling through a galaxy of stars overlaid with text, images and other visual flotsam and jetsam. This journey eventually leads to the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve are cast out thanks to a bite of an apple. To help them on their way, Aziraphale gives them his flaming sword. Standing on paradise’s eastern wall, Crowley opines that sticking a fruit tree in the center of the garden with a Do Not Touch sign isn’t very subtle, and makes one wonder what God was thinking. Aziraphale, however, is convinced that it’s part of Her “ineffable plan.”
The nature of that “ineffable plan” is, by definition, unfathomable, and Good Omens charts the subsequent efforts of Aziraphale and Crowley—and many, many mor—to defy it and/or carry it out to the letter. For Crowley and his underworld cohorts (chiefly Ned Dennehy’s Hastur), that begins with the delivery of the infant Antichrist to a convent of satanic nuns who switch him with the newborn child of an American diplomat (Nick Offerman). For the next eleven years, Aziraphale and Crowley do their best to watch out for the kid, who’s prophesied to bring about Armageddon (the final clash between Heaven and Hell, which is coveted by both sides). Unfortunately for them, though, when the day of reckoning draws near, they discover—thanks to the Antichrist’s hellhound not showing up by the boy’s side—that they’ve made a terrible mistake. Courtesy of a recovery room mix-up, the Antichrist is actually in the care of Arthur (Daniel Mays) and Deidre Young (Sian Brooke), who’ve named him Adam (Sam Taylor Buck) and reside in the sleepy Oxfordshire town of Tadfield.
Thus Good Omens sets in motion a search for the Antichrist that features a raft of colorful secondary figures: crackpot Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell (Michael McKean); his jezebel medium neighbor Madame Tracy (Miranda Richardson); witchfinder descendent and techno-klutz Newton Pulsifer (Jack Whitehall); and Anathema Device (Adria Arjona), a witch whose 17th-century ancestor Agnes Nutter (Josie Lawrence) wrote a book of 100% accurate prophesies, culminating with the forthcoming End Times. As if that weren’t enough, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—War (Mireille Enos), Pollution (Lourdes Faberes), Famine (Yusuf Gatewood) and Death (Brian Cox)—are on their way to join Adam, whose father Satan (Benedict Cumberbatch) wears a striking crown of horns. And Aziraphale and Crowley are also contending with their administrative superiors, Archangel Gabriel (Jon Hamm) and Beelzebub (Anna Maxwell Martin).
Director Mackinnon handles this madness with a nimble gonzo hand that (like the pop-up book credit sequence) recalls prime Gilliam. That impression is furthered by the series’ Brazil-ish portrait of Heaven and Hell as fundamentally bureaucratic realms run by officious bosses and regulated by endless protocols and paperwork. There’s a whimsical whirligig verve to Good Omens as it barrels forward, turning its figurative head this way and that to take in all the peripheral sights (and sight gags) involving Atlantis, aliens, séances and neighborhood-watch weirdoes. Be it the idea that Crowley designed London’s M25 motorway in deliberately hellish fashion, or the recurring, relevant-to-the-immediate-proceedings Queen songs playing on the radio of Crowley’s classic Bentley (a nod to one of the book’s running jokes), Gaiman and Mackinnon fuel their action’s comedic energy with cheeky one-liners and throwaway bits.
Nonetheless, Good Omens wouldn’t soar without its two leads, who are so perfectly (mis)matched that they immediately elevate the series to must-see status. Sheen’s Aziraphale is a dandy bookseller and connoisseur of finer things who has a pesky habit of bending the rules. As such, he’s invariably drawn to Crowley, a devious bad boy who also can’t help indulging in his nicer impulses; with regard to his literal fall from grace, Crowley says he merely ”sauntered vaguely downwards.” Sheen’s prim-and-proper routine syncs perfectly with Tennant’s wild-child mania, and better still, they radiate genuine affection for each other—sentiments that the series establishes immediately, and then bolsters during the fantastic opening half-hour of episode three, which recounts their through-the-ages acquaintance-turned-friendship.
At the center of Good Omens are questions about free will—for humans as well as divine agents—and the value of trying to comprehend the fundamentally incomprehensible. As fans of the novel know, Gaiman’s amusing fable is a celebration of sovereign thought and deed. Amidst its playful carnivalesque craziness, full of CGI creatures, flaming cars, countdown placards and trips through telephone cables, it forwards the notion that there’s a little bit of good and evil in all of us, and that accepting that fact is the ultimate key to self-acceptance, happiness, and avoiding disaster on an apocalyptic scale.