Film and drama

Screen Themes: Good Omens vs American Gods

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It’s time to get biblical, as entertainment editor John Turnbull checks out a couple of TV shows inspired by fantasy novels; the dark and gloomy American Gods and the remarkably chirpy Good Omens.

American Gods (Season Two)

Created by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green (2019)

Based on the 2001 novel by Neil Gaiman, American Gods tells the story of the ongoing battle between the old gods (led by Ian McShane’s Odin, now calling himself Mr Wednesday) and the new gods (led by Crispin Glover’s scenery-chewing Mr World), told mainly through the eyes of con-man Shadow Moon (buff but bland Ricky Whittle).

The first season introduced the extensive cast of gods through a series of stunningly rendered origin stories, an indulgence that has unfortunately been dropped for Season Two. The plot (such as it was) saw the opposing sides building their armies and preparing for war, but to be fair the plot was often secondary to trippy visuals and religious allegory, some of which was handled well, some less so. The one thing that was clear was that there were no good guys or bad guys among the gods and most of them treat humans as pawns for their own amusement.

Season Two sees the ostensible good-guy trio of Wednesday, Shadow and Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) heading for the House on the Rock, a roadside tourist trap in Wisconsin set to be the site of the showdown between gods old and new. Shadow’s relationship with his undead wife Laura (Emily Browning) continues to decay along with her body, and the allegiances of gods such as Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) and Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) become increasingly unclear.

There are a few great things about American Gods (Season Two), chiefly the performances of Ian McShane and Orlando Jones as spider-god Anansi, plus the standalone episode about Odin’s fallen son Donar, known better to some as Thor, God of Thunder. On the downside, the plot moves at a glacial pace, and many of the performances skirt a fine line between dramatic and ridiculous (Crispin Glover, I’m looking at you). It’s all a little frustrating, really.

Good Omens (Season One)

Created by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (2019)

Based on the novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens takes the religious historical obsessions of Gaiman, and pairs them with the witty dialogue and meaningful character development of Pratchett, resulting in a six-part-comedy about an angel and demon teaming up to prevent the end of the world.

Former Dr Who David Tennant steals the show as Crowley, a demon who has been living on Earth so long he’s become used to the comforts of humanity, much to the disgust of his fellow demons. His opposite number is Aziraphale (Michael Sheen), a finicky angel with a fondness for tea and classic literature. When tasked with bringing on the apocalypse, the unlikely duo team up, and embark on a long con that involves stolen babies, surprisingly cute hell hounds and tense standoffs with the Archangel Gabriel, played with smarmy relish by Jon Hamm.

As is often the case with literary adaptations, words that worked well on the page sometimes sound forced on screen and this seems particularly true with Pratchett’s observational witticisms. Tennant handles the challenge best, but also gets the best dialogue, as devilishly handsome anti-heroes tend to do. Sheen, by comparison, struggles with the rhythm of the speech at times, compensating by mugging like a background player in a Monty Python sketch.

The spectre of British comedy is ever-present in Good Omens, from subtle allusions to Fawlty Towers and The Goodies, to the iconic London locations. Accordingly, your feelings about Good Omens may be determined about how you feel about British comedy in general. If you think The Life of Brian is the height of comedy, you’ll probably find something to like, but if the last British comedy you can remember enjoying is The Two Ronnies, this may not be for you.

The Verdict

The connective tissue between American Gods and Good Omens is clearly author Neil Gaiman, but aside from their central characters being celestial beings, the two shows have surprisingly little in common. Despite the efforts of Ian McShane, American Gods takes itself incredibly seriously and wants you to be aware that what you’re watching has layers, dammit.

Good Omens, by comparison, doesn’t take itself seriously at all and, as a result is an enormous amount of fun to watch. Tennant, Sheen and Ham are all clearly enjoying themselves, and the casting of Frances McDormand as the voice of God is as inspired as it is subversive.

American Gods and Good Omens are available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

American Gods (Season Two): 6/10

Good Omens (Season One): 8/10

Books by John Turnbull are available on Amazon and Kindle, including supernatural thriller Damnation’s Flame; action/romance Reaper, black comedy City Boy and travel guidebook Bar Trek: EuropeDamnation's Flame by John Turnbull is also available in paperback in the IA store HERE (free postage).

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