The Christian symbolism isn't rooted in the Bible or in Catholic tradition, but the mini-series does have its moments of grace.
The new Amazon Prime mini-series Good Omens, written by author Neil Gaiman and based on a novel he wrote in 1990 with the late Terry Pratchett, uses lots of Christian symbolism, yet God is only a minor and unimportant character.
The plot of Good Omens is hard to follow. Armageddon has arrived, brought on by the birth of the antichrist. But also, there is this witch who is following a set of prophecies from her deceased relative in the 17th century. Also, the antichrist has a group of quirky childhood pals. Also, there are aliens. Also, a sea monster. Also, Michael McKean is there, doing a bad Scottish accent and unintentionally courting an aging hooker, for reasons that completely escape me.
Yeah, story-wise it’s a mess. But that does not mean it isn’t enjoyable. It is beautifully shot. The special effects are gorgeous. And Gaiman’s penchant for writing funny, winsome character arcs really comes through.
The most endearing part of Good Omens is the friendship between the angel Aziraphale, played by Michael Sheen, and the demon Crowley, played by David Tennant. The show chronicles the unlikely pairing from its beginning at the fall of man all the way through to the present day. Like all good odd couples, the two not only come from different sides of the fence but they also have contrasting personalities. Crowley is bold and often heroic, but he can also be brutal and manipulative. Aziraphale is smart, refined, and cordial, but also naive. Together, their strengths compliment each other while their weaknesses cancel each other out.
The performances by Tennant and Sheen are superb. It is riveting any time either one of them is on the screen. The development of their friendship, in spite of all that stands against it, is the most remarkably Christian part of the story. As the two of them learn to care about each other, then to trust each other, and finally to make sacrifices for each other, their friendship becomes the series’ greatest hint that there is something beautiful beyond this world that is worth striving for.
It is clear from the start, however, that all of the other angels and demons are doltish and only interested in winning. The sets used for both heaven and hell are differently lit corporate boardrooms, and both the demons and the angels tend to dress like they are preparing for a day of mergers and acquisitions. The darker world of hell is perhaps more viscerally cruel, but this makes the brightly lit, smiling world of heaven all the more disturbing as the duplicitousness and pettiness of the angels becomes clear over and over again.
At the heart of Good Omens is a kind of Taoist humanism, emphasizing over and over again what is best about humanity while arguing — rather optimistically — that our faults can yet be overcome. The yin and yang are held up as the ideal way to understand the human experience, that there is a little evil and a little good in everyone. So long as the good dominates, a small amount of evil can actually be helpful, in as much as it allows us to avoid slavishly following the herd. The series does an impressive job of skewering the kind of tribalism and group-think that are hallmarks of our age.
Yet throughout the series, the absence of God is highly conspicuous. The show is narrated by Frances McDormand who, we are told in the credits, is “The Voice of God.” But McDormand’s God never seems to be personally invested in the events she is describing. The characters talk about God’s plan from time to time, but no one seems much interested in it. Jesus appears briefly, at the moment of his crucifixion, but He is given no lines. The divinity of Christ and His purpose in offering Himself as a sacrifice for our sins are never brought up, even to refute them.
The ambivalence about God that is found in Good Omens is emblematic of our age. It is not so much that we have adopted a passionate disbelief in God as that we have become fundamentally uninterested in Him. This is why spirituality remains important to so many people in the west, while religion is increasingly cast aside as obsolete. Spirituality is about us — our wants and needs, our hopes and fears, our goodness and badness. Religion is about something outside of us, and the Christian religion in particular is about God. It is about the mystery of who He is and what He has done in and through creation. In our self-absorbed era, we just cannot be bothered to look deeply into anything that isn’t a mirror.
Christian-themed stories without Christ are never good stories. Imagine how boring and banal the story of St. Augustine would be, for instance, if he was simply another self-righteous ex-lecher who managed to clean up his behavior through some kind of self-help routine. Minus God, the saints would be insufferable. And the same is true of angels. Gaiman’s depiction of angels as feckless, effete, and even traitorous is probably spot-on for a world in which angels are no nearer the presence of God than we are. What Gaiman does not seem to realize though is that the same is also true of us. Despite the constant nods towards the goodness of the world that are embedded in this series, the things we enjoy in this world are only good when they draw us into communion with God. Good food and good wine can be beautiful and amazing, or they can just make us fat and drunk. One of those stories is worth watching, while the other is a snoozefest.
So is Good Omens worth watching for Catholics? Advisedly and cautiously, I would say yes. The content is going to be offensive to some people because of the way Christian imagery is co-opted to tell a story that has almost no resemblance to anything found in the Bible or in Catholic tradition. Nevertheless, the hidden gem of friendship between Aziraphale and Crowley makes Good Omens point, in spite of itself, to something divine.