Recently I’ve spent a few frustrating days catching up with TV. I rarely watch anything, but when I found out that two of my favourite books – Good Omens and American Gods – were receiving the visual treatment, I knew that within ten years I’ll sit down and watch, and that I will have a great time!
I did not have a great time.
Watching Good Omens was the most frustrating time I’ve spent in front of the TV since I had last screamed “y u so STUPID, Jason Stackhouse?!” at the screen. When Good Omens got something right, it was better than I could have ever imagined, surpassing what I would have considered to be perfection. When it wasn’t perfect, though, it was either embarrassing or… boring.
The biggest problem was God. (This is not a sentence I ever expected myself to utter.) Frances McDormand was a great choice, it’s just that she shouldn’t have been there at all. Certain parts of the book have proven to be too difficult (or impossible) to translate into a visual medium, so the series would sort of take a break for McDormand to provide a rambling explanation of why things were happening. I was reminded of my grandma, who used to watch soap operas. We’d sit in front of TV and I would discreetly fiddle with my phone, as grandma provided running commentary: “you see, this is Bill, he is a bad guy, he is very rich because he stole the money from his ex-wife, and this bitch here is his girlfriend Tabitha, she’s cheating on him with the gardener, she is not a nice woman at all, but then Bill deserves it…” I’ve always felt that if something needs to be explained, it doesn’t belong – in a book, in a museum, on TV. This is not to say that I would have known how to do it – it just didn’t work for me.
The Four Riders of the Apocalypse got a bit of an update. Unfortunately it was either a bit too much or not enough. Yusuf Gatewood (Famine), as pleasant to look at as he was, was given the worst part. The only speaking bit of his that worked was the first one in the restaurant, lifted verbatim from the book. After that, he was only allowed to produce stiff and pretentious mini-soliloquies. In general, the interactions between the Riders seemed to be random monologues uttered passionlessly into space without acknowledging each other’s existence. A lot as if apocalypse was about boring people to death.
Somebody had the bright idea to insert climate change into Anathema Device’s passionate speech about the truths hidden in the New Aquarius magazine, somewhere between the re-emergence of Atlantis and peaceful aliens arriving on Earth to spread the message of love. I suppose this was meant to be funny? Did the person who wrote that part actually read the book?
The less said about the special effects, the better. The Independence Day in 1996 looked better. Adam’s red-lit eyes… that was kinda… 1980s. Early 1980s. The computers in the army base made the ones in You’ve Got Mail feel realistic. I later read that the special effects were ~ironic~ and actually rather expensive. I saw neither of those things. Cringe-worthy, yes. Ironic – hmm – not sure about that, but I guess it sounded better than “look, we here at Amazon can’t afford to spend money, we’re a little startup”.
Missing: plastic horns with blinking lights inside
The kids were superfluous to a series that’s supposed to revolve around them. This was not their fault and they were not bad actors. They were supposed to be in the centre of everything but they just couldn’t be, because David Tennant and Michael Sheen played their roles too well. (Additional shout-outs for Miranda Richardson and Josie Lawrence.)
The good bad guy and the bad good guy
Once Aziraphale and Crowley exchanged three lines of dialogue I was in love with them and I could tell they loved each other as well. It actually did feel as if they’ve known each other for centuries. Every time Sheen and Tennant appeared on the screen the rest of the cast became irrelevant. They were so good it almost seemed unfair.
This doesn’t mean that the casting was limited to Sheen and Tennant and random people dragged from the street, or that the other actors did a bad job. I loved Jon Hamm’s Archangel Gabriel, because Jon Hamm is a natural at playing pompous assholes. Anathema Device and Newt Pulsifer were played by utterly gorgeous people, so pretty that I wouldn’t be able to tell whether their acting was good, but in comparison with the angel and the demon they had all the chemistry of pickled cabbage and chocolate mousse. When I was finished all I could remember were Aziraphale and Crowley… and that there were some other characters doing some other stuff, some of which wasn’t bad. The nuns were great, loved them… *sounds of bottoms of barrels being scraped*
— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) September 18, 2017
The ending didn’t work and that’s me being polite. It seemed to build up to a massive explosion and instead fizzled out with a miserable “pssssst”. This part of the book made me sigh with relief, yet still kept me perched on the edge of my seat, because even though it was sort-of over it really wasn’t – there was more of the ending coming and I couldn’t find out what it would be. When I was watching, I couldn’t figure out why there was one more episode left, since the ending… sort of… just happened? No? There must have been something more, since there was an hour left… There was. I didn’t mind watching the last episode, because it had a lot of Sheen and Tennant in it and by that point I’d watch them reading the phone book at each other, but it was hardly an explosive conclusion.
I have no idea how I would score something as uneven as Good Omens. The series might have actually been improved by removing everything that was not Crowley and Aziraphale appearing in various places and bickering or having lunches… due to my artistic sensitivities I wouldn’t mind keeping some close-ups of Famine dressed in biker gear either, but he wouldn’t be allowed to say any of the things the writers provided him with. Possibly if the Sheen/Tennant casting wasn’t so genius I would have enjoyed myself more. I wouldn’t be bothering to write anything about it either and probably wouldn’t have watched all of it, but I could hope that one day someone will produce a better version. Unless that someone starts filming tomorrow and casts the same actors as Aziraphale and Crowley, it’s very unlikely.
American Gods (season 2)
The first season blew me away. It was everything I wanted and more that I didn’t even know I wanted. There was an extra episode explaining what happened before the book! It felt like finding out that there was a special edition of my favourite record with two more songs that are as good as all the others. The whole season was incredible visually – I have never seen anything like it. The best (poor) comparison I can come up with is Pedro Almodóvar remaking Twin Peaks. I nearly cried when the last episode ended on a massive cliffhanger. I started obsessively checking when season two would arrive. It was announced, then postponed, then postponed further as things kept going wrong. At some point it looked like it would never happen. This might have been a good thing.
The current cast (until half of them leave before season three, I suppose)
The first ones to quit were Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, the creators of season one. This was allegedly related to budget they wanted versus what Starz was willing to give them. A few months later Gillian Anderson, who played Media and was all sorts of perfect, left as well, followed by Kristin Chenoweth (Spring). A new showrunner was hired, Jesse Alexander, who was then sidelined during the filming until his involvement became only theoretical. Then Neil Gaiman stepped on board and demanded that the series becomes more faithful to the book. You’d think that would be a good thing… and you’d be wrong.
Above: the complete range of Ricky Whittle’s facial expressions
The first thing to go was any attempt to resolve that massive cliffhanger. What? This? Ah, yeah, didn’t happen, forget it. Those incredible parts in the first season where the Gods got introduced to us? Yeah, well, you know enough by now, nobody needs that. What you really need is a lot of footage of some people and/or Gods in a car and some nonsensical speeches. Aha, almost forgot – there is a war coming and it’s just-about-to-start-very-very-soon-once-Mr-World-stops-waiting-for-the-right-moment-to-declare-that-very-soon-has-arrived. That would be not yet.
I love Anansi/Mr Nancy, but by now he’s a caricature – I might be wrong, but it doesn’t feel like that’s faithful to the book. The presence of the Djinn (who is a major woof) probably has a point, but I am yet to see it. Bilquis = fantastic. Czernobog = fantastic. Odin/Mr Wednesday = fantastic. Visuals = not exactly groundbreaking, but still pretty nice. Nevertheless, American Gods S2 is the opposite of Good Omens, as everything about it feels great except the story and the main protagonist. As I was reading the book I related to Shadow Moon so much that it felt uncomfortable at times. When I’m watching Ricky Whittle there is nothing for me to relate to. All he seems to do is produce that one vaguely confused facial expression, sometimes give short soliloquies on how his eyes are opening and his belief is growing and… yeah, that’s it. I’m not necessarily blaming the actor, because he hasn’t been given a lot to work with.
Those two need a spin-off.
Right now the only reasons why I want to watch the remaining episodes of season two (no, I haven’t finished it yet and I’m not sure if I’ll bother) are the interactions between Laura Moon and Mad Sweeney until SPOILER happens and my curiosity regarding Djinn and Salim, since it’s a bit too late to make that bit faithful to the books. But with Gillian Anderson’s Marilyn Monroe and David Bowie gone and the cliffhanger left not even unresolved but unmentioned, I feel cheated. Despite the fact that Loki hasn’t even appeared yet. Curious how the next showrunner, Chic Eglee, is going to do and whether he manages to hang around until the filming is completed?
All promotional photographs used are property of BBC/Amazon and Starz/Fremantle.