One question I struggle with on a daily basis is whether the feeling that humanity is completely fucked is actually new or just a product of short memories and faster news cycles. You don’t need an apocalyptic mindset to enjoy Amazon’s new six-episode series, Good Omens, though it probably helps.
The story, based on the 1990 novel by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, follows an angel and a demon, played by Michael Sheen and David Tennant, respectively, who, having come to appreciate humanity, team up to keep the recently-born antichrist from starting a winner-takes-all holy war for the earth. Neil Gaiman served as showrunner.
“You know, the weirdest thing for me was updating barely anything and having people talk to me about how incredibly timely it is,” Gaiman said during a round table with journalists at a London hotel. Normally I wouldn’t put much stock in a showrunner telling journalists how timely his show is because, well, what else are they going to say? That their show isn’t timely? That there’s no reason not to postpone watching it for a few years? No, naturally their show is the perfect show to hold a mirror to today’s troubled times.
But you have to give Gaiman (now 58, and still youthful looking, with a head full of bushy, lightly greying hair) some benefit of perspective. He originally wrote (along with Pratchett, who died in 2015) Good Omens 30 years ago, a time when most of the Western world felt nothing if not optimistic. The Cold War was over! Right here, right now, we were watching the world wake up from history (or so I think I heard in a song once).
“It was exactly 30 years ago, 1989. Glasnost had happened, the Berlin Wall had just come down, and we put the line in the book, after we’d written it, going ‘Ah, everybody’s getting on so well.’ We put the line in saying how unlikely Armageddon was,” Gaiman said. “Now people keep congratulating us having a drama that feels like the right drama for the right time. And I would happily trade feeling apt and timely for a world in which we’re looking around, going, ‘Well yes, we have a doomsday drama, but obviously it’s very unlikely today.'”
Feeling apt, in fact, may be Good Omens‘ biggest challenge. A story that was fairly cute lark about religion in the Cold War dawn of 1990 might seem obsolete in a world of climate change and creeping fascism. Good Omens‘ brain trust did update it, but not a strictly contemporary kind of way, more in a way true to the goofiness of the source.
“The biggest update we had to do in design was in Crowley’s car,” said director Douglas MacKinnon in his gentle brogue. MacKinnon directed every episode. “We have a running joke in the series about Queen songs. In the book, the joke is that every time you put a cassette into the player in Crowley’s car, it always turns into Queen’s Greatest Hits. So we’ve made it CDs instead.”
But if Good Omens’ apocalyptic themes are a specific reflection of how fucked we all are, the show at least seems to offer a solution. A great drinking game to play at the Good Omens junket would’ve been to drink every time someone says “we live in polarized times.”
Douglas MacKinnon: “I think if there’s one of the messages of Good Omens is that polarization doesn’t work. And I think one of the terrible things that we’re seeing in the world now is polarization about virtually everything. You’re either way over there or way over there with politics and everything. Our demon and our angel, David and Michael, they’ve basically ended up in a world where… and you couldn’t have two more apparently polarized characters, [but they] end up getting on really well with each other. And the way to bumble through is to talk to each other and have a glass of wine and have a cup of tea and make some toast and have a little chat and everything else.”
Jon Hamm, who plays the Archangel Gabriel: “We are in a really polarized time. Everyone is certain of their opinions without realizing that they’re opinions.”
Michael Sheen, who plays the Earthbound angel, Aziraphale: “The sense of the impending apocalypse — I mean, we can taste it, I think. So, it feels very prescient. And if there is a takeaway, it’s that you’ve got heaven and hell as these two polarized forces and actually if there is going to be any hope, it’s that two people can come together in the middle. May I suggest.”
Hamm: “I think it’s a deliberate storytelling choice on Neil and Terry’s part to present these ideas of polarized opposites, Heaven and Hell, black and white, good and bad. And then say, ‘Yeah, both of them suck.’ It’s the middle ground that’s the good part. That’s what we have on Earth. Heaven and Hell are mirror images of the same shitty job. One just has a better view.”
It’s easy to hear all of that and think the show is some paean to centrism. That it’s selling us the idea that the solution to our intractable problems is tea and wine (something mostly only rich people think about politics). But I choose to read Good Omens as simple humanism. And in a more concrete sense, it’s about two mid-level workers at supposedly rival outfits coming together to realize that it’s the bosses who are the real assholes.
It’s that tradition, of taking the piss out of authority figures, that feels like Good Omens‘ strongest theme. Which feels particularly British in execution. Where Americans seem to love the “great man” theory of history and competence porn in general (see virtually every cop or hospital show), in British shows it seems authority figures or “experts” are far more likely to be bunglers. It feels fairly representative that it was an American who created The West Wing and a Scot who created Veep.
Sheen: “I think Neil and Terry write very much in the great British tradition. And yes, there’s definitely flavors of Monty Python and flavors of Douglas Adams. It’s the sort of absolutely cosmic and universal bumping up right against the very British and English domestic.
David Tennant: “I mean it’s no coincidence that originally, or early on, Terry Gilliam was interested in making it into a film. And Terry coming directly out of the Monty Python traditional, you know, it certainly taps into that kind of British humor tradition.”
Hamm: “I mean there is sort of the Monty Python version of the upper-class twit competition. I think there’s a tradition in probably every culture of making fun of the man, making fun of the boss. That’s how you get through the day honestly. I think we’ve all had some version of that boss who thinks he’s being remarkably helpful and is not.”
Miranda Richardson, who plays Madame Tracy: “We’ve always punctured pomposity. Whilst being capable of great pomposity as well.”
Josie Williams, who plays Agnes Nutter: “We’re capable of huge self-appreciation and huge arrogance, sort of at the same time.”
The journey to get Good Omens to the screen, television or otherwise, has been a long one. At the premiere that night, Neil Gaiman dedicated the show to Terry Prachett, who was there in spirit, in the form of a chair with his hat and a big bag of popcorn.