The delightful chaos wrought by Amazon Studios’ new Good Omens TV series at SXSW cannot be denied or ignored, literally. With such an enormously immersive marketing strategy, you’d expect it was being positioned as the next Game of Thrones or Westworld, both of which saw HBO employ similar tactics in years past. But, you’d be utterly and completely wrong.
Good Omens is something entirely different — and, if successful, could have the potential to usher in a new era of TV.
It may have the budget of a show meant to occupy a prime time slot on a premium TV channel, but it more closely resembles something developed for the BBC (which indeed it was): fewer episodes, structured to conclude in a single season, and, well, lots of incredibly talented British actors. At the same time, Good Omens is able to enjoy far more creative freedom as it isn’t shackled by industry-imposed censors or budget. It is, for all intents and purposes, not just another predictably executed American television series.
That’s something original co-creator and showrunner Neil Gaiman was not coy about when discussing the upcoming series.
“Well the lovely thing about Good Omens is it has a beginning, it has a middle, and it has an end. And so, ‘season one’ of Good Omens is… Good Omens. It’s brilliant. It finishes. You have six episodes, and then you’re done. We weren’t trying to build all these other things [into the story] to allow it to continue indefinitely,” Gaiman explained during a panel discussion with cast and crew. A big part of that, he added, is because it was incubated as traditional UK television, where the attempt is to make the best TV program you can “rather than the tradition in American TV, where the goal is to be on at 7:30 on Wednesday night for the rest of time.”
For the uninitiated, Good Omens was adapted for the screen based on the 1990 novel written by Gaiman and dearly departed legendary fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett. It follows the comedic tale of angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and demon Crowley (David Tennant), who form a mutually beneficial partnership born out of a desire to prevent the end of the world after the birth of Satan’s son Adam (Sam Taylor Buck). The series also features a star-studded cast of biblical characters including Satan (Benedict Cumberbatch), Death (Brian Cox), Archangel Gabriel (Jon Hamm), the voice of God (Frances McDormand), the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and several others.
In many ways, the TV series is Gaiman’s grand eulogy to his old friend and writing partner, having only agreed to the undertaking of showrunner to fulfill Pratchett’s request for an uncompromising version of their vision. To that end, Gaiman tapped Douglas Mackinnon to help guide the process as well as direct all six episodes in the series that he’d written. That’s another change of pace from most TV series, which typically use many directors and writers over the course of a season. (It also lessened the burden of keeping everything consistent, as is usually the job of a typical TV showrunner.)
Mackinnon is an interesting choice, and one that I suspect a lot of people will overlook with all the other star power attached to Good Omens. That’s a shame, because his career is more than impressive, having directed some incredible episodes of Doctor Who, half of the criminally underrated Steven Moffat-produced mini-series Jekyll, and an assortment of episodes from other notable TV series like Sherlock, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and Outlander.
“There was something very specific he did on Jekyll where it was funny. And it was scary. And it was romantic. And it was domestic… it was all of these things. And he didn’t try and turn it into just one,” Gaiman said, adding that the only way Good Omens could work in TV is if he tapped a director who understood that.
He found that in Mackinnon.
“For me, the big thing we did that was different from most other episodes, and maybe it’s because of the new world we were in, but you actually have enough money to do something properly,” Mackinnon said. By that, he meant that the show could chase after whatever it took to be faithful to the book. And, the book itself is something he carried around on set the entire time, keeping Pratchett’s vision present as a result.
“It was a genuine collaboration,” Mackinnon said. “Everyone who worked on the show – the crew, the runners, the post-production team – everyone walked away from this show thinking they worked on something special. And that’s because they loved the material.”
As the panel discussion confirmed, it’s also very much a series that seems to have grown into its own unique homogeneous mixture composed of performances by the likes of Tennant and Sheen.
Sheen and Tennant are masters of their craft with every scene they previewed to the crowd, which is significant since Gaiman revealed Aziraphale and Crowley were originally the same character in an early draft of the book. There is a scene that perfectly encapsulates their dynamic, in which Aziraphale and Crowley are having a “secret” discussion, about planning acts of miracles and wrath in Edinburgh, while William Shakespeare rehearses Hamlet with actors to an empty theater.
“It’s the only part I’ve ever played that when I think of the character, I don’t just think of the character. I can only think of Aziraphale with Crowley,” Sheen said.
But then there are the portions that were added that weren’t originally included in the book, such as the scenes involving Archangel Gabriel played by Jon Hamm. Gabriel is among the leadership in heaven, and tasked with managing the coming end times.
“The book shows that both heaven and hell are shitty places to work, just one has a better view,” Hamm said of the role. You can see elements of the serious business man mixed with the ridiculousness of a “corporate angel” role, which gives Hamm more than a few perfect opportunities for comedic timing as he delivers dialog. (At least from the scenes those at the panel were treated to.)
Speaking of those clips, I don’t think anyone is prepared for the incredible performance Tennant brings to Crowley. The world fell in love with his two-hearts of gold as the hero in Doctor Who, but I’m starting to think he was born to play bad boys.
“When I was writing for Crowley, I was writing for David Tennant… I thought that there’s no other human who could play Crowley,” Gaiman said.
All said, Good Omens isn’t going to be the franchise vehicle for nearly a decade in the way Game of Thrones is, or Star Trek has been for nearly half a century. A sequel series wouldn’t have the same magic as the first, and honestly that’s probably for the best since Gaiman announced retirement from his career as a showrunner.
If Good Omens is successful, what we could see, however, is a new breed of creatively uncompromising television that takes more cues from independent film than it does from the traditional American TV show, or even from low-budget BBC shows. Not that that was ever the goal for those involved — as they’ve already accomplished the goal they set out to do: create a version of the book that would make Sir Terry Pratchett proud.
Good Omens will premiere all six episodes on Amazon Prime Video May 31. Click right here for trailers and more.