❉ David Tennant and Michael Sheen play off each other perfectly, writes Don Klees.
The dark-haired man standing near the bottom of the escalator in New York’s Jacob Javits Convention Center on June 3rd of 2005 looked familiar. Had the search for coffee that preceded my taking that escalator been more successful, a surge of caffeine-induced acuity might have enabled me to recognized my fellow Book Expo America attendee as Neil Gaiman more quickly. That the popular writer was so gracious when I approached him to express my appreciation of his work was no surprise. That he quickly turned my attention to another nearby person, describing the individual as someone else whose work he suspected I also enjoyed, managed to move the needle more than a little.
14 years later, having Neil Gaiman literally introduce me to Terry Pratchett remains a fond memory. Until recently, though, it also served as a downbeat reminder of something that seemed unlikely to happen – a film version of their collaboration Good Omens. In a pop-culture environment afflicted with catch-phrases like “peak television”, it’s easy to forget that up until about a decade ago any on-screen adaptation was obviously going to be a film. Specifically, one directed by Terry Gilliam, already the patron saint of stories considered difficult to film.
Watching the six-part television adaptation of Good Omens which just premiered on Amazon Prime’s streaming service in America ahead of its eventual broadcast on the BBC makes two
1) Crowley, the angel who sauntered vaguely downwards, is the part David Tennant was born to play.
2) While Terry Gilliam could have made a perfectly good film version, a lot of great material would almost certainly have been lost in the process.
Even the initially planned four-part miniseries whose development was announced in 2012 would have involved condensing the book significantly. The overall plot might have survived more or less intact but only at the expense of the story’s personality. Gaiman called Good Omens “the funniest story [he] could tell about the end of the world.” Its success in this area hinges on giving the celestial/infernal comedy of errors space to unfold, not just for movement from one plot point to the next but also the purposeful digressions where a great deal of the fun resides.
In a shorter telling, recounting the universe’s origin – with narration by Frances McDormand as [REDACTED] and reminiscent of the BBC’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy TV series (albeit on a much bigger budget) – might make the cut, but a lot of background would inevitably have to go. It seems highly unlikely that a more compact adaptation could have devoted half an episode in the middle to depicting the relationship between Crowley and the angel Aziraphale from Biblical times to the 20th century as this production does.
Though arguably not critical to the plot, these scenes are among the very best across the series. Not only do Tennant and Michael Sheen play off each other perfectly in the roles of Crowley and Aziraphale, the scenes also convey sharply worded truths about humanity amid the humor. Moments like the pair observing the crucifixion of Jesus achieve both aims simultaneously.
-Crowley: What was it he said that got everyone so upset?
-Aziraphale: Be kind to each other.
-Crowley: Oh yeah, that’ll do it.
Tennant clearly has the showier part – one that often brings to mind his tenure on Doctor Who – but their relationship never feels unbalanced. A similar dynamic holds true across the production. Despite a cast with over 200 speaking parts – many played by some of the world’s best-known actors – the series never feels overloaded. Director Douglas Mackinnon, whose previous work includes the award-winning Sherlock episode The Abominable Bride, deserves particular credit for making such a wide range of settings and situations feel cohesive and bringing out the full range of humor without tipping over into self-parody.
-Gabriel: God does not play games with the universe
-Crowley: Where have you been?
That exchange is one of many that point to how Mackinnon and the production in general benefited from the input and influence of Neil Gaiman. While it borders on cliche to say that the book Good Omens is the real star of the series, having one of the book’s authors as the scriptwriter and an executive producer almost certainly set the tone. What ultimately makes this a superior adaptation is that Gaiman’s faith in the material he and Terry Pratchett originally wrote is complemented by a willingness to tweak things for the good of the series.
Consequently, the TV version of Good Omens is many things, a hilariously heartfelt tribute to an absent friend not the least of them.
❉ Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman’s ‘Good Omens’ airs from 31 May 2019 on Amazon Prime. The series is co-produced with BBC Studios, and the BBC will show the drama after its release on Amazon.
❉ Don Klees has spent many years in the video business. This continues to enrich his life in many ways, chief among them being able to tell people he watches television for a living. An avid consumer of pop – and sometimes not-so-popular – culture, Don is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.