As superheroes, high fantasy, and other totems of Gen-X outsiderdom have become the closest thing we have to a monoculture, the words we used to insult the outsiders who loved them have undergone a curious metamorphosis. A geek used to be someone whose obsessions were so outlandish and fervent that they were akin to a circus freak. Now it’s anyone who has attained a specialized form of knowledge, up to and including the nice fellows who install your television.
Meanwhile, the writer of the piece you’re reading—and, he’d guess, his editor—spent no small amount of time as a child being called a nerd. (Editor’s note: Whatever, nerd.) Today, nerddom is a badge of honor. So, in describing Good Omens, both the television show and the novel on which it is based, we need terms that have resisted colonization. Words that still carry with them a delicious sense of shame. What we really need is a word like dork and its attendant quality, dorkiness.
Dorkiness can’t be refined, or commoditized as blockbuster fuel. It’s too strange, too silly, too embarrassing. A dork is the friend in high school who even nerds pretended not to know for fear they might start shouting Monty Python quotes at random. If geekiness is that which was once exiled but has now claimed a place at the table, dorkiness is still at home listening to Tom Lehrer records. Game of Thrones is geeky; Time Bandits is dorky. The MCU is geeky; Stan Lee’s actual writing is dorky. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is geeky; Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens is dorky.
Pratchett, the now-late author of dozens of novels set on a planet called Discworld—which sits atop the backs of four elephants who themselves stand on top of a giant turtle swimming through space—might be the dork novelist par excellence. If that description of the setting of the Discworld novels makes you cringe, please know Good Omens is not for you. It has, remarkably, made the transition to the screen with its dorkiness fully intact, thank God—or perhaps, given the subject matter, the Devil.
Good Omens, whose six-episode first season is now streaming on Amazon, is a very silly and very English comedy about how the apocalypse goes awry when the infant antichrist is mistakenly switched at birth. Instead of winding up the son of an American diplomat, he ends up being raised by a middle-class English family who lives on one of those streets that sounds like an entrée at a quaint restaurant. An angel named Azriphale (Michael Sheen) and a demon named Crowley (David Tennant) have been dispatched by their respective sides to make sure the end of the world goes smoothly, but the two have been on Earth so long that they’ve gone native. The (im)mortal enemies have become friends, and they love humanity too much to see it destroyed. The rest of the plot is too Byzantine to describe, but it involves an occultist with a book of 100-percent-accurate prophecies, the Four Horsemen receiving their sacred implements via a kind of inter-dimensional FedEx, and a witchfinder, played by Michael McKean with a tattered uniform and a Scottish brogue, who might not be as delusional as he seems.
As in many dork comedies, the story of Good Omens is somewhat beside the point anyway. Like a rapidly deflating balloon, the narrative is meant to zoom miraculously in unexpected directions, until coming to land just so in the perfect spot. The template here is Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its 1981 BBC adaptation. Like that series, Good Omens pairs absurd situations with an stiff upper lip, employs frequent deadpan voice over narration (here courtesy of Frances McDormand), and has special effects so unconvincing they become their own form of amusement.
Good Omens is at its best when it’s a Divine (Buddy) Comedy. Sheen and Tennant, wonderful actors unafraid to let out their inner cheeseball, have great chemistry and know how to sell a joke. The third episode, which spends a half-hour showing the evolution of their friendship over the last 6,000 years, is witty and crisp and filled with the kind of blithe sacrilege that appeals to newly rebellious junior high schoolers. It even has a scene set during the crucifixion. As the angel and demon look upon Jesus being nailed up on the cross, Crowley mentions that he showed the Nazarene all the kingdoms of the world. When Azriphale asks him why, Crowley responds, “He’s a carpenter from Galilee. His travel options are limited.”
Whenever the show departs from the two leads, however, the life seeps out of it. Good Omens leans so hard on zaniness, from the writing to the Danny Elfman–esque score and Terry Gilliam–esque zooms (Gaiman wrote the scripts; Douglas Mackinnon directed), that it feels like being told you’re having fun rather than being allowed to have it. The performances outside the central pair are also wildly uneven, and McDormand, a great actor in most circumstances, is hamstrung by the literally prosaic narration. Much of what she says is taken almost directly from the novel, and it’s clearly written for the cadences of an English voice, not an American one. Her narration is frequently used to stitch together scenes and digressions that don’t really fit, including the introductions of each of the Four Horsemen, who arrive in their respective episodes completely at random. Some of the grace notes also work far better on page than on screen. All the pumpety-thumpety music in the world can’t enliven a brief sequence where we learn that Crowley terrifies his houseplants into extraordinary growth by shredding the ones that lag behind. Moments like these are delightful—and delightfully brief—on the page. But given room to grow within the six hours of the series, they drag Good Omens down.
Crowley’s unique approach to horticulture is one of several sequences that feel included primarily to serve the book’s fans. The same refreshing sense of dorkiness that blew me straight back to eighth grade while watching it may be inseparable from the sedulous faithfulness to the text that makes this adaptation somewhat awkward. The show is sealed, as if in amber, within the sensibility of the novel and the enthusiasms of its readers. To change too much about it, to make it too respectable or open to a wider set of viewers—even wide enough to include people who once loved the book but haven’t thought about it in a decade or so—would compromise the essential qualities that make Good Omens part of the dork canon in the first place. But the novel, and its jokes, are 30 years old now, and the influences that Good Omens wears on its sleeve—Hitchhiker’s and Monty Python chief among them—are even older.
It’s a small miracle that the dorkiness of Good Omens would survive intact despite an influx of cash and big-name actors. But even though it brings a nostalgic glow to see moments like the voice of Satan coming over a car stereo while Queen is playing translated to screen, and even though that voice is a very game Benedict Cumberbatch, the smile it produces is one of warm familiarity, rather than actual delight.