In the beginning—of television, that is—you didn’t need much to create an entertaining program. A few podiums and a gregarious host added up to a hit game show. Classic sitcoms were built around a couch, a dinner table and an attractive family. But production values have been rising ever since. A new crop of maximalist TV shows like Maniac, Legion, The Umbrella Academy and much of the Ryan Murphy canon aren’t just expensive; they’re bursting at the seams with visual detail, conceptual ambition, cultural references, freaky characters and supernatural flourishes.
The latest is Good Omens, a six-part adaptation of the 1990 fantasy touchstone by genre titans Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett that hits Amazon Prime May 31. It’s maximalist in every conceivable way, from its biblical sweep to its dense, allusive script to the size of its ensemble, led by David Tennant and Michael Sheen. It may also be the first show whose action spans 6000 years.
A comic update of the Book of Revelation, Good Omens stirs a dollop of human error into its trippy End Times stew. Charged with delivering the infant Antichrist, Tennant’s swaggering demon Crowley hands him off to an inept Satanic nun—who sends him home with the wrong parents. The thing is, Crowley and his angel pal, a timid gourmand named Aziraphale (Sheen), are secretly desperate to stop the apocalypse. So, in hopes of saving the world, they waste a decade trying to neutralize a regular kid. The real devil spawn, Adam (Sam Taylor Buck), spends his childhood tromping around the woods with friends. By the time Aziraphale and Crowley realize their mistake, the Four Horsemen (bikers, naturally) have begun to assemble.
That’s certainly enough story to fill six hours, but Good Omens sprawls out from there, weaving in a 17th-century witch’s absurdly specific prophecies and a romance between her distant descendant and a guy who comes from a long line of witch hunters. There’s a millennium-hopping summary of Aziraphale and Crawley’s verboten friendship, which begins at the Garden of Eden. Heaven and hell are worlds unto themselves, with their own hierarchies and hypocrisies. To fully appreciate this show, which alternates between childlike hyperactivity and erudite humor, you need a solid grasp of Western history, Judeo-Christian lore, the occult and classic rock. Oh, and did I mention that God—voiced by Frances McDormand—is the narrator, bustling through reams of exposition?
It’s a lot, and sometimes the pace is more exhausting than bracing. At the same time, the show’s underlying ideas about tribalism and friendship are pretty commonplace. Still, Tennant and Sheen make an ideal buddy-comedy duo; their banter does justice to Gaiman (who adapted the novel and is an executive producer of the miniseries) and the late Pratchett’s witty prose. Like all maximalist TV, Good Omens promises to be polarizing. It isn’t my idea of heaven, but your paradise may vary.