In the UK: Available on Amazon
Globalisation throws up a lot of paradoxes, some of which I’ve remarked on before. On the one hand, globalisation can be a good thing. It can introduce us to different cultures, encourage investment, give us variety and new ideas, and generally enrich our lives. But it can also be a bad thing, leading to homogenisation, cultural appropriation and the imperial imposition of one set of values on another.
I know that’s a bit heavy for both a comparison of Netflix and Amazon and a review of the new adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens. But I feel it’s important as an explanation for why despite fine source material, scripts written by one of the authors and a stellar cast, Amazon’s Good Omens is far more annoying than it is funny.
Note for Americans and other aliens
Just in case you’ve never read Good Omens, I’ll point out that as the name suggests, it’s a spoof of classic 70s horror film The Omen. In that movie, the Bible’s Book of Revelations starts to come true and the Anti-Christ comes to Earth, where he is raised by the American ambassador to the UK.
In Good Omens, however, the Anti-Christ gets given to the wrong parents by some Satanic nuns and ends up being raised in a small country village by a nice little middle-class English couple of no note.
Meanwhile, an angel and a demon who have been living on Earth since its very creation decide that actually, the Apocalypse will really ruin everything they’ve come to enjoy about humanity and existence, so do what they can to prevent its advent.
The book is a combination of Pratchett’s humour and satire and Gaiman’s whimsy and horror. While it touches on many topics, its central theme was that maybe if we all tried being nice to another – or at least if everything was nice and middle class and English and everyone just bumbled along – maybe the world would be a better place.
With a timeline stretching back thousands of years and frequent inclusions of parts of medieval/early modern English history, particularly witch trials, it also exhibits a love of history and language.
That love of words – as well as the frequent “notes for Americans and other aliens” to explain quirks of English culture – make it a hard book to adapt. Yet Amazon have had a go, joining forces with the BBC to throw a metric fucktonne of cash at the project, which seems to feature every single famous British actor in the world, as well as more than a few Americans for good luck.
The trouble is that the echo chamber of Amazon-style globalisation has resulted in something that self-consciously presents an international idea of Englishness, rather than the authentic English humour of the book. And by international idea of Englishness, I mean Harry Potter.
There’s nothing wrong with the cast of Good Omens. Indeed, they’re rather fine. David Tennant and Michael Sheen, who respectively play the friendly, bromantic demon and angel trying to prevent the end of days, are excellent casting and have great chemistry together. The story is basically all about them and they provide some very wide shoulders on which to support it.
Similarly, among the supporting cast there’s the likes of Michael McKean, Miranda Richardson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mireille Enos, Jon Hamm, Nick Offerman, the entire League of Gentlemen and many, many, many more. Even Jack Whitehall is in it and (say it quietly) is quite good.
In fact, there’s so many more famous people that they usually only get five minutes each before they have to go again.
The script, just like the good book, is smart, funny and a delight. There are omissions and some of the subtleties get lost, but it captures the humour of the original very well.
It’s just everything surrounding them that’s the problem.
Trouble is, this isn’t just an Amazon show – it’s a BBC and Amazon show. Whereas Netflix basically commissions production companies to make whatever show they fancy in whatever way they fancy, Amazon seems to take an alternative approach. At the very least, whenever there’s a non US-show to be made, we end up with the likes of Deutsch Les Landes, rather than a Plan cœur (The Hookup Plan) – something that plays to international stereotypes rather than anything that native viewers might want to watch.
Ditto the Beeb, which as soon as it hears the words “international market”, produces something that’s either a period piece with posh people drinking tea or that’s full of that “wacky British sense of humour”.
Good Omens is full of that. Like I said, the cast is great – it’s just they’re clearly in a comedy and they know it. More than that, they’re all being paid very well for a few minutes work and are enjoying every rand they’re getting on their jolly South African holiday (for parts of the show are indeed shot there). Jon Hamm is… hamming it up.
Meanwhile, the production values and tone are 5% Famous British Comedy Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy (particularly the narration by Frances McDormand as God), 90% Harry Potter. Anyone bought a car or piece of technology since 1950? Nope. Because that’s what jolly olde England is like, isn’t it?
That final 5%? The BBC and Neil Gaiman’s own Neverwhere, particularly Hell – cos that’s the underworld. Neverwhere should never be used as a template for anything.
Good Omens itself was quite good at mixing the Pratchett humour with Gaiman’s talent for horror. But whereas the book’s “maggots coming down the phoneline to the call centre” scene, for example, was actually a real, palate-cleansing moment of nastiness in the book, here it’s as woefully executed as anything in Chris Columbus’ first two Harry Potter movies. Look! Maggots down the phoneline! Funny! Zany! Oh, those Brits.
Except it’s us making it.
Overlooking the production itself, the story is fun, still fresh and enjoyable. But overall Good Omens is a disappointment. Not a bitter one, because it’s more or less what I was expecting, but I’d been hoping to have my expectations defied by something less clearly transatlantic and that had more confidence in its source material to entertain, without constant hints to the audience at how quirky and funny it is.