Nothing but ‘Good Omens’ as Neil Gaiman’s series finally hits TV
In 1990, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett released “Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch,” a comedic novel about the end of days. Nearly 30 years later, the story has finally found its way onto the screen as Amazon Prime Video’s “Good Omens,” a limited series that follows an angel named Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and a demon named Crowley (David Tennant) as they try to prevent the apocalypse.
It’s certainly not for lack of effort that “Good Omens” hasn’t previously been adapted. Director Terry Gilliam planned to make the story into a movie for years, although it never came to fruition, and it wasn’t until Pratchett died in 2015 that Gaiman took matters into his own hands.
“I did it because Terry [Pratchett] wrote to me and he asked something,” Gaiman recounts during a recent press day for the series in London. “We’d known each other for 30-something years and he’d never asked me for anything, ever. He wrote and he said, ‘Look, I know how busy you are, but you’re the only person with the same love for and understanding of the old girl that I have. You have to make this into television and I can’t and I want to see it before the lights go out. I’ll help in any way that I can, but you have to do this. Please do it for me.’”
Gaiman adds, “I thought he had 10 years and then he died, very suddenly. I flew to England for the funeral, came back from the funeral and started writing Episode 1.”
The author wrote a six-episode version of “Good Omens,” one that is faithful to the original book but that also brings in new elements based on discussions he had with Pratchett about a possible sequel. He amped up the role of the angel Gabriel and cast Jon Hamm with a single email exchange. Sheen, a longtime friend of Gaiman’s, was sent early versions of the scripts. Gaiman also reluctantly took on the role of showrunner, hoping to ensure that his vision stayed true from the page to screen.
“I’ve never show-run anything before,” the author says. “But I knew what I needed to be able to make this thing was to cast it, to choose the director and just be able to say no when people wanted to cut the wrong bits. And there were battles to get the casting the way that I wanted it. But this is my casting.”
Part of that was finding the perfect actors for Aziraphale and Crowley, whom Gaiman calls “two sides of the same coin.” Years ago, he and Pratchett joked about casting the late Peter Sellers in both parts, which he feels is essentially what he’s done with Sheen and Tennant. The pair previously worked together on a film called “Bright Young Things,” but never shared any scenes. They’ve had remarkably similar career trajectories and played some of the same roles onstage.
“The characters are written so beautifully in this and the most important thing for me was the dynamic between the two of them,” says Sheen, who has been a fan of the book since it came out while he was in drama school. “That relationship – when that’s working with another actor there’s nothing better than that. great to be able to play a part, but if it involves a relationship and that relationship really flies and you have a sense that you’re really playing with each, there is absolutely nothing better than that. You don’t always get on. I think we both assumed it would be an enjoyable experience because we like each other’s work, but you never really know until you start.”
In many ways, the series hinges on the rapport between Aziraphale and Crowley, an unlikely pair of friends who cross paths multiple times over 6,000 years. When the son of Satan arrives on Earth and threatens to end life as we know it, each ignores the strict mandates of heaven and hell to stop the apocalypse. In both the series and the book the characters occupy a moral middle ground, proving that being entirely good or entirely evil isn’t really that productive. While the show is wry and comedic, there’s a real message in it as well.
“With both heaven and hell, neither are portrayed as particularly attractive places,” Tennant says. “They’re polarities of fundamentalism and neither are really working out. If there is a moral message to take away it’s that if we’re going to find redemption we’re going to have to meet in the middle somewhere. We’re all going to have to get off our high horses and talk to each other.”
“Reality, and everyday experience, is not about black and white,” Sheen adds. “It’s messy and complicated and things keep changing. And you get through it by working together as opposed to ‘This is the one way.’ It’s our flaws and our differences that we have to hold on to because that’s what allows us to connect. Not to use those differences as reasons to polarize and stand against each other.”
When Gaiman and Pratchett wrote the novel the world was seemingly finding peace. The Cold War was about to end, the Berlin Wall was about to fall and democracy seemed to be getting a foothold everywhere. The writers had to actively insert lines into the book to denote a sense of tangible peril. But now references to war and climate change and uncompromising leaders who think they know what’s best are all too real.
“When we wrote it actually I’ve never felt further away from Armageddon,” Gaiman says. “We were not prescient. We just talked about the things that bothered us then and they bother us more now. Nobody’s fixed anything. We’re not saying anything fancy that no one else has thought of, but I’m really glad we’re saying that stuff now.”
“I think it’s coincidental, because there have been moves to adapt this multiple times since it was written 30 years ago,” Tennant notes. “But it does so happen that right now it seems to be telling a story to a moment in time. It folds into a lot of things that are in the ether.”
“Good Omens” has a succinct narrative arc that spans six episodes, all of which were directed by Douglas Mackinnon. It ends neatly, as the novel does, and the actors were only contracted for one limited series. Before Pratchett’s death, he and Gaiman planned to write a sequel that would be titled “668 — the Neighbour of the Beast.” Could another season of “Good Omens” eventually emerge?
“Yes and no,” Gaiman says. “Is there a possibility? Nothing is impossible. People would love to see more of Michael and David and Jon and everybody. It took me five years to do this. I’m very much looking forward to getting back home and finishing my novel and being a writer and becoming a retired showrunner.
“I’m just very proud of this as a thing. I don’t want people going into it going, ‘Ah, this is Season 1. I wonder where they’ll take it.’ I want people watching this as if we were giving them a six-hour movie that somehow, magically, we were allowed to make.”
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