Review: Angel and Demon Cross the Aisle to Save the World. (Sorry, It’s Fiction)

It’s taken a long time for “Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch,” Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s 1990 end-of-days fantasy novel, to reach the screen. Long enough for Gaiman, then a promising comics writer and Duran Duran biographer, to become an industry: The Amazon Prime Video mini-series “Good Omens,” which debuted Friday, is the third current television show based on his work, with Netflix’s “Lucifer” and Starz’s “American Gods.”

And there have been other auspicious changes. When Gaiman and Pratchett made a Queen greatest-hits CD a leitmotif in their book — it’s the preferred driving music of one of the heroes, a demon named Crowley — it was a joke about the bombastic songs’ late-1980s inescapability. Now it gives the mini-series a soundtrack of pop classics.

But what makes the diverting and mostly pleasurable “Good Omens” especially timely is something that hasn’t much changed: Armageddon seems as real a possibility now as it did three decades ago. The story’s hopeful universalism and ecological consciousness, which played well against the backdrop of the late Cold War and the ozone hole, feel just as necessary. A line like “your polar ice caps are below regulation size for a planet of this category” can go right from book to screenplay, and it has.

Gaiman wrote the series’s six episodes himself (Pratchett died in 2015), and in streamlining the book — which was a digressive, more-is-more exercise in the tradition of “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” — he’s made the wisest possible choice. The story is now focused even more closely on the central relationship between Crowley, the high-living devil who kicks the plot into gear by misplacing the baby Antichrist, and the prudish angel Aziraphale, who works with Crowley in a desperate, covert, comical campaign to keep the world from ending.

It’s a good move because the book’s sharpest and funniest writing was mostly in the Crowley-Aziraphale scenes, and for the series Gaiman has reduced the time given to some of the duller material, like the appearances of the horsemen of the Apocalypse (here motorcycle riders) and the group of friends who beneficially influence the unsuspecting 11-year-old Antichrist, Adam Young. (There’s a visual shout-out to Richmal Crompton’s echt-English “William” children’s-book series, a primary inspiration for “Good Omens.”)

And it’s a great move because demon and angel are played, by David Tennant and Michael Sheen. It’s hard to imagine better casting than Tennant as the cynical but softhearted Crowley, piloting his vintage Bentley at speed through central London, or Sheen as the timorous, dandified Aziraphale, maintaining his cover as an antiquarian book dealer while thrilling to the thought of lunch at the Ritz.

Gaiman has added to the cast of Crowley’s and Aziraphale’s hellish and heavenly superiors, to reinforce the idea of their working to subvert divine plans, and this creates small, droll parts for performers like Jon Hamm (Gabriel) and Anna Maxwell Martin (Beelzebub). He’s also added an amusing sequence showing the co-conspirators’ meetings through the ages, where we learn why the unicorn no longer exists and see a worried William Shakespeare (Reece Shearsmith) during rehearsals for “Hamlet.” (It’s a nice in-joke when Tennant, a notable contemporary Hamlet, offers advice to Richard Burbage, the actor who created the role, played by Adam Colborne.)

The BBC Studios production is studded with piquant performances by veteran actors, mostly British. The great Bill Paterson is at his bemused best as Adam’s exasperated neighbor, and Michael McKean and Miranda Richardson are fun to watch as the aging witchfinder, Shadwell, and his accommodating landlady, Madame Tracy. Sanjeev Bhaskar of “Unforgotten” is pleasingly oily as the libidinous lawyer, Baddicombe, and Derek Jacobi, no less, has a cameo as God’s spokesman, Metatron.

Gaiman’s tweaks to the plot, along with explanatory animations and an unfortunately obtrusive narration by Frances McDormand as God, make the story more straightforward and — take this as a description, not a judgment — more cartoony, less writerly. Many fans of the book may be disappointed by what’s been de-emphasized, particularly the sentimental Anglophilia of the children’s friendships and the notion that Adam is disinclined to wipe out humanity because he’s too attached to his village of Lower Tadfield.

It’s easy to imagine a big-budget feature version of “Good Omens” that would lean into the sentimentality while also giving more striking visual treatment to Adam’s accidental reorderings of the world, like the sudden emergence of Atlantis and the appearance of tunneling Tibetans in Lower Tadfield. But it most likely wouldn’t be as entertaining as this casual, somewhat shambling series, which catches the spirit of Gaiman and Pratchett’s attempt, at the start of their careers, to keep topping each other with gags and comic set pieces.

And among its copious jokes, “Good Omens” has the wit and good taste to mock “The Sound of Music” on multiple occasions. For that alone it deserves an Emmy.

Mike Hale is a television critic. He also writes about online video, film and media. He came to The Times in 1995 and worked as an editor in Sports, Arts & Leisure and Weekend Arts before becoming a critic in 2009. @mikehalenyt Facebook

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