By Hannah Matis
NB: I have attempted to avoid spoilers for the TV series, but read at your own risk. Or better yet, read the book.
Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman first published Good Omens in 1990, at a moment in the American culture wars when the feud between fundamentalism and rational atheism was raging at the expense of any sort of third option, and when the turn of the millennium had ignited all manner of apocalyptic expectations. (Y2K seems so adorably quaint from the vantage point of 2019.) I remember being traumatized as a child by the film, A Thief in the Night, which opens with an absolutely chilling depiction of the Rapture and which made the rounds in my charismatic church in New England in the late eighties. Then, of course, there would be the Left Behind franchise, which launched in 1995, and much more in our present vein, Dogma in 1999, which may well have borrowed from Good Omens. For Pratchett and Gaiman, Good Omens was a collaboration that married the strengths of both writers and resulted in a cult classic, now adapted by Gaiman into a TV series for Amazon Prime.
Pratchett was the elder of the two, a late-blooming publishing success and a legendarily disciplined writer, who continued to publish at least one book in his Discworld series each year throughout his career, and for whom Good Omens was something of a side project, even though he probably wrote most of the book. Gaiman in some ways was the opposite, an enfant terrible in a black leather jacket achieving cult superstardom with the Sandman graphic novels, with a sizable and feverish Goth fanbase to go along with it. To this day, Pratchett remains a very “English” taste for some Americans — although it would not surprise me if he made more converts in this golden age of satire — and most of my American friends who know Good Omens know it through Gaiman rather than Pratchett. Both men were extremely self-conscious and hard-working wordsmiths in a fantasy genre then dominated by (mostly) terrible writing, and both were fascinated in different ways by the nature and power of faith and human belief.
The premise of Good Omens is that, after six thousand years of human history, one angel and one demon have effectively gone native among humanity, becoming increasingly alienated from their high (and low) command and building a hesitant mutual alliance. This rather cozy existence is thrown into jeopardy when Crowley (David Tennant), the demon, receives orders to deliver the infant Antichrist to be switched with the newborn of an American diplomatic family. That baby-swapping is involved should tell you all you need to know about what happens next: namely, human error, which results in the Antichrist not being put into a position of power and influence but sent to grow up as a normal kid in a village in Oxfordshire.
Meanwhile, Crowley and Azirophale (Michael Sheen), the angel, begin a too-cunning plan to balance and thereby neutralize their respective bad and good influences over the ordinary human they think is the spawn of Satan, while Heaven and Hell prepare for The Final Battle. This is salvation history, but told from the point of view of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
I have always wondered to what extent Azirophale and Crowley are ironic authorial self-portraits, wry send-ups of the public personas of Pratchett and Gaiman: Azirophale the mild-mannered angel immersed in good food and old books, Crowley the demon rock-star who, in one of my favorite lines in the book, “did not fall so much as saunter gently downwards.” Who is the nicer of the two is rather an open question, in art as in life. Beneath Pratchett’s public reputation as a “cheery elf” was always, as Gaiman said in his eulogies of his friend, a very real and palpable rage at the stupidity and injustice of the world. Pratchett was an atheist who campaigned for much of his later life, after his diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s, for his right to choose when and how to die.
Gaiman, however, while writing for a readership that ostensibly avoided or rejected traditional belief, was steeped as a young writer in the style and clarity of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, and as he has matured as a writer he has frequently tackled ideas that feel downright theological in nature: incarnating the Tardis in his brilliant episode of Dr. Who, “The Doctor’s Wife,” hinting at a feminine Trinity in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, repeatedly returning to the Norse myths of Balder, Odin hanging on Yggdrasil, and of course Ragnarok. (Incidentally, Hell as depicted in Good Omens owes an enormous debt to Screwtape.) Interestingly, Tennant’s deeply melancholic Crowley captures something of this sense of spiritual yearning and isolation. Crowley doesn’t particularly like what side in the Great War he has ended up on, and can’t quite understand how he ended up there.
Good Omens deliberately leaves open whether what unfolds is, in fact, God’s Plan or merely the plan to be subverted by The Truly Ineffable Plan; like The Life of Brian it distances its actors from identifying too closely with God or Christ. As with Buffy or Supernatural, angels in this story are not really agents for good so much as they are the bureaucrats of the universe, Corporate Heaven, while Crowley, the devil with the good lines, is sympathetic precisely because he seems to have so little actually to do with Hell. The real moral center, as always with Pratchett’s work, is in the English countryside and a boy, Adam (of course he is called Adam), coming to grips with the power of human choice.
Reviews of the series have by and large been very positive: it is an extremely faithful adaptation, and the fanbase is pleased. The cast is very strong; in addition to Tennant and Sheen I was particularly delighted by Miranda Richardson, who makes the absolute most of what she is given in the role of “that Jezebel,” Madame Tracy. Where the series is weak, in my opinion, is exactly insofar as it is faithful to its source material, in that the transformation of a novel largely narrated in the third person didn’t seem to create quite enough dialogue to fill a six-part miniseries. The pacing was occasionally off, with some passing jokes in the novel now having to become entire scenes on their own — Crowley terrorizing his houseplants, for example — and with actors, Jon Hamm in particular, sometimes standing around for what feels like an unconscionably long time while nothing much happens. Without Pratchett’s restraining and ironic hand Gaiman’s native inclination to over-egg the pudding has been given free rein, and ultimately it is a much more sentimental and busy adaptation of the book than I expected.
The series, predictably, has provoked the sort of fundamentalist wrath that will delight a certain proportion of its fans: most notably, the twenty thousand people who petitioned Netflix to cancel a show that actually is offered by Amazon Prime. Gaiman has said in interviews that, if anything, Good Omens seems more appropriate to the present day than when it was written nearly thirty (!) years ago. What hasn’t changed in that time is the ethical and theological sucker-punch of the original, which asks, more or less subtly, why so many ostensibly nice people seem so keen on ending the world rather than fixing it. What sort of theological worldview is content, even eager, to let the world burn? Is it only that they are complacently sure that the elect will be raptured out before things get really horrible? In Good Omens, a boy’s obsessive love of every tree and hedge in his particular corner of the English countryside is set against the implicit Gnosticism of so much American belief. As Christians, whatever we think of the book or the series, it is incumbent upon us to have a better answer.
Hannah W. Matis is an assistant professor of church history at Virginia Theological Seminary.