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.”