If to err is human, then “Good Omens” has become the very species it worships. Though Neil Gaiman’s adaptation of his own 1990 novel (co-written with Terry Pratchett) would have fared better had it reached for the heavens (and cut its extraneous, tedious material) or sullied itself in the fires of hell (and embraced a more chaotic, subversive religious satire), the six-episode Amazon and BBC co-production is still a colorful, amusing piece of big-budgeted, middle-minded adventure-comedy that will likely please fans and even win over a few skeptics. Anyone willing to forgive its hodgepodge of plotting and dearth of dynamic characters will have a bit of fun with the two crackling leads; it’s just with such lofty potential, it’s hard not to be disappointed in the flawed results.
Picking up with the beginning of the universe, “Good Omens” employs God herself as the narrator (Frances McDormand, sporting a benevolent lilt) to guide viewers through a centuries-spanning friendship between two earthbound spirits. Crowley (David Tennant) is a demon, but not just any demon — he’s morphed from the snake in the Garden of Eden into a Queen-loving, sunglasses-at-night prankster. He’s not the epitome of evil anymore, so much as he enjoys annoying Londoners with mismanaged roadways. (Crowley personally mucked up the plans for England’s M25.)
You see, meeting Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) has softened him (that, and centuries surrounded by humans). Aziraphale is such a kind angel, he gave his only sword to Adam when he was cast out of Eden — against God’s will. Now, he’s become addicted to mankind’s edible delights (a foodie, if you will), and takes pride his impeccable clothing. The angel and the demon aren’t even supposed to know each other; the latter is meant to be tempting men and women toward Satan while the former should be out saving as many souls as he can for God. Yet after an early meeting, the two can’t keep themselves apart. Not only do their paths cross by assignment, but each comes to see similarities between their side and the other’s.
Gaiman’s best work points out hypocrisies in Christianity, steering readers toward a more accepting nature, and “Good Omens” works best when Crowley and Aziraphale question their orders and rationalize their decisions. It helps that Sheen and Tennant build chemistry to spare, with the “Masters of Sex” star going all wide-eyed and innocent while the former “Doctor (Who)” relishes the chance to shout, snarl, and snap at every other sentence. But they’re also given plenty to chew on; Gaiman (who wrote each episode) never excuses their innate disparity in order to make things easier on them or the audience. They fight, split up, and even work against each other, which only makes their will-they-won’t-they friendship all the more electric.
These two carry “Good Omens” nicely when they’re around, but sadly the supporting characters fail by comparison. As difficult as it is to imagine, Michael McKean’s heavily accented witch-hunter becomes not just a one-note ninny, but a regular nuisance; Gaiman relies far too often on him, along with more mortals, to carry overly complicated exposition and run around with largely meaningless errands. (Related: Jon Hamm’s wry Gabriel, a character not in the book, isn’t given nearly enough to do.) Everything they do does connect with the angel and demon’s main story, but more by force of will than symbiotic necessity.
There’s a cleaner, more exciting version of “Good Omens” that does away with humankind altogether (which is strange given “Good Omens” basically argues for mankind’s inherent value, despite all our screw-ups). Meanwhile, Douglas MacKinnon’s direction makes the most of lush environments and a farcical tone, but the meandering editing doesn’t always do the scenes justice. McDormand’s narration, while amusing, can be a crutch, and there are distinct mistakes in timing, whether it’s when a song kicks in or when shots start and end.
The six-episode limited series loses momentum as it goes, making the teased possibility of a sequel less and less appealing. (And “Good Omens” already incorporated elements of a planned sequel to Gaiman’s novel, which was never completed). Still, the comic pairing of Sheen and Tennant could carry a story all its own, if only their creators would leave them alone to their own devices.
“Good Omens” premieres all six episodes Friday, May 31 on Amazon Prime.