Can really good casting be a detriment to a film or television project? That is the question that comes to mind while watching Good Omens, the six hour-long episode adaptation of the comic novel by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.
Casting Michael Sheen and David tenant as the angel and demon pair of Aziraphale and Crowley who after thousands of years among humans have developed a soft spot for them so they decide to try and thwart the upcoming Armageddon, was a stroke of genius. The two play so well off of each other it feels as if they have really known each other for multiple millennia. But where the problem comes in is that Sheen and Tennant are so good, the rest of the cast, who are all quite capable in their own roles, do seem diminished in comparison.
I suppose that part of the problem could stem from the source material. The original novel, which combines Gaiman’s penchant for developing mythology and taking existent story systems and expanding them in unforeseen but logical directions with Pratchett’s punchy, witty prose style, definitely gave Aziraphale and Crowley the heavy lifting in terms of plot and characterization. The other supporting characters were mostly there mostly to help move background pieces around as the beginning of the final showdown between Heaven and Hell grows nearer. But it is also one of the things that hurts this adaptation. When we are away from Aziraphale and Crowley, we are still engaged with the story, just at not as high a level. While the series is remarkably faithful to the nearly 30 year old book – outside of a few modern updates – it should come as no surprise that one of the best additions is a twenty minute segment that opens episode three in which we see the pair’s growing friendship from the dawn of Creation at the Garden of Eden down through history.
And while the series is at least entertaining as it lurches through a majority of its run, the wheels come off of things right at the end. The confrontation between Adam and his pre-teen friends and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is underwhelming in both terms of how it is shot and how it plays out in the script. Anathema and Nelson sitting out a portion of the lead up for a quick, prophesized shag, feels more like the story just putting them out of the way for a bit as it doesn’t know what to do with them.
Those are just prelude to the two biggest stumbles right at the end. The first, is the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Satan. With as big a name as his, and subject matter such as this, one would expect that Satan would play a rather big part in the finale. However, the CGI character that we get in the last episode is barely onscreen for two minutes and leaves the feeling that Cumberbatch was woefully underused. And then finally, in order to help fill out the final episode, we get an extended coda of Aziraphale and Crowley dealing with their respective superiors who are upset over their actions. Unfortunately, the twist that will resolve this is pretty obvious from the beginning.
This is not to say that the whole series is a waste of time. Far from it. Various attempts to bring Good Omens to either television or film have been made over the years, and it is doubtful that they would have been as successful and as faithful in adapting the material as the series often is. (Though it would have been wonderful to see what madcap energy Terry Gilliam would have brought to it when he was trying to get it on the silver screen back in the mid-1990s.) But perhaps its faithfulness is its problem. As one of half of the originating duo of the book, Gaiman just might be too close to the material, and his desire to honor the departed Pratchett may have kept him from making changes to the text necessary for a more successful adaptation.