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In ‘Good Omens,’ the Apocalypse Hits Close to Home

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s novel, and the miniseries adaptation by Amazon Prime, spins a story about Armageddon told with absurdist British humor. It felt strangely familiar to a teenager growing up in a furiously evangelical Oklahoma town in 1990.

Gollancz‎/Workman/Ringer illustration

I first read Good Omens, the novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, in 1990, the year it was published. I was 14, and in many ways, I was the book’s ideal audience. Good Omens is a story about the Apocalypse breaking out in a small, sedate English town; I lived in a small, sedate, but furiously evangelical Oklahoma town where many people believed the Apocalypse was liable to break out at any moment. Good Omens is a work of British comedy in the venerated tradition of Monty Python and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; like all my geeky friends, I knew the “Dead Parrot” sketch by heart, could be reduced to gasping hysterics by the mere words “Vogon poetry,” and generally felt, in my half-hostile surroundings, that absurdist British humor was one of the forces keeping me alive.

It’s easy, looking back, to smile at the intensity of that conviction. A middle-class American teenager in the early ’90s loving Life of Brian—so novel! Did you love Star Wars, too? (Friends, I did.) What’s harder is to remember how serendipitous and world-enlarging those discoveries were for us at the time. In small-town Oklahoma, in those pre-internet days, finding something like Monty Python meant VHS tapes handed down by friends’ older brothers, cassettes arbitrarily spotted on trips to malls in other cities. My hometown had something like 50 churches and precisely one bookstore; I learned Douglas Adams existed when I found a lone copy of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, already yellowing, misfiled in a stack on the sci-fi shelf. We had no notion that other kids in other towns might be making similar discoveries or that the enthusiasms they inspired would agglomerate into a cliché. We only knew that, ringed in by absurdity but with no received language in which to explain it to ourselves, these works were a lifeline from a world that almost made sense.

So Good Omens should have been right up my alley, if there was an alley called “existential endurance of Bush-era childhood” and it were paved with stones called “the inherent ludicrousness of the word ‘Wensleydale’” and “what if there were a man who’d named his car ‘Dick Turpin,’ and he desperately longed for someone to ask him why, but no one did.” I’d never heard of Gaiman in 1990, but I loved Pratchett’s Discworld series, in which Death rode a horse named Binky. There was even, I saw as I picked up Good Omens, a character not unlike me—a young boy with a small gang of misfit friends. He was a bit younger than I was, 11, and he was also the Antichrist, but other than that, he was a perfectly relatable character.

Good Omens mystified me, however, for reasons I never fully understood until I watched the new Amazon Prime–BBC miniseries based on the book, which was released last week. What was confusing wasn’t that I didn’t like the novel; I loved it. What was confusing was that I loved it even though I didn’t find it funny. That is, I could tell on some level that it was funny, and I could recognize the signature swerves and high-wire paradoxes of my favorite style of joke—there was a character called “Anathema Device,” and a book of uncannily accurate prophecies that were so specific as to be useless, and any number of other elements that would have been at home in Life, the Universe and Everything—but my ear was strangely unable to detect the precise pitch of the comedy. It didn’t make me laugh. It made me feel strange, even sad, though not in an unpleasant way. The jokes looked like jokes I was familiar with. But they seemed to be landing someplace beyond me, someplace I couldn’t quite see.

One of the many delights of Good Omens, in both novel and TV form, is the way the comic conceit at the heart of the story is constructed not from one joke but from several jokes fitted together with masterly exactness. One of these jokes is that Englishness is a force of such stubborn power that it rivals the biblical order of the universe. Aziraphale and Crowley, the angel and demon around whom the story revolves, ostensibly work, over millennia on earth, to convert human souls for their respective sides. But in fact they are themselves gradually converted, to a cozy English life of restaurants and houseplants and Queen records, and they end up working to thwart the Apocalypse not for any grand theological reason, but mostly because the idea of the world ending offends their acquired English good sense. (Michael Sheen and David Tennant, who play Aziraphale and Crowley, respectively, brilliantly embody this quality of eternal beings quite looking forward to a nice spot of lunch.) Another joke, related to the first, is that the signifiers of English middle-class life and the signifiers of the Book of Revelation look terrifically ridiculous when juxtaposed. What if the Final Battle began not on the plain of Armageddon but in the village of Lower Tadfield, Oxfordshire? What if the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had to stop and ask directions from a village busybody out walking his dachshund, and War, Death, and Co. had to take in a lot of confusing talk about roundabouts?

Still another joke is that the eschatological drama of Revelation is essentially the emotional drama of every tween. Adam Young, the 11-year-old boy, is, technically, the Antichrist. But because he’s been given, via the mistake that sets up the story, a conventional small-town English upbringing by two loving parents, he’s less a force of pure evil than a kid struggling to learn where his ego has to yield to his obligations to others. He throws a temper tantrum and creation nearly immolates, but because at heart he shares the same essentially benevolent outlook as Aziraphale and Crowley, he gets over himself and remains a normal kid, happy to play with his hellhound (a feisty little black-and-white terrier) and get into scrapes with his friends. English modesty triumphs over ecstatic Christianity, and the near annihilation of the world takes on a funnily domestic character, as if the Apocalypse were a regrettable but thankfully fleeting incident, something resolved before dinner, a short, dark tea-time of the soul.

In my hometown, the end of the world was a more high-stakes business. Church marquees warned us that the last days were coming. There were two on the way to the pet store where we went to buy fish supplies, and they seemed to rival each other alternately for apocalyptic grandeur and groan-inducing puns; during my family’s brief aquarium dalliances we never knew whether we were going to be hit with SON SCREEN PREVENTS SIN BURN or REPENT, FOR THE JUDGMENT IS NIGH. Every kid, whether from a churchgoing family or not, knew about the Rapture; not being from a churchgoing family, I was routinely told, mostly but not always by children, that I would certainly end up in hell. (I found this, or thought I found it, hilarious.) The wild-eyed Sign Man who lived off the highway near Newkirk festooned his yard with homemade billboards about guns, death, conspiracy, and the end-times. A few years after reading Good Omens, I went with my preacher’s-daughter girlfriend to a rally downtown, where hundreds of people prayed to the north, south, east, and west for God to conquer the Hindus and the Muslims and establish His kingdom on earth. The mayor was one of the supplicants at this rally. If you’ve never lived in a place like this, if you’ve always taken a basic secularism and tolerance for granted, the atmosphere of collective, with-us-or-against-us fantasy may be hard for you to imagine. I had a mostly happy childhood, but one marked by a certain sense that reality could shift beneath me at any moment. I had a constant, low-level fear of religion, what it could make people think and say and do. Christianity could be loving and joyful, as it was forever insisting it was, but it could also turn dark and violent, and it could shift unpredictably, and it expected you to go along without asking questions—or at least without asking the wrong questions, whatever those were.

This may say more about my experience of American evangelicalism than about Good Omens, but what I realized, when I revisited Pratchett and Gaiman’s story on TV, was that it mystified my 14-year-old self because my experience was exactly wrong for it. The comedy of Good Omens depends in large part on taking something extremely banal and familiar to its audience and holding it up next to something phenomenally grandiose and exotic. For me, however, the poles were reversed: The apocalyptic milieu of Revelation, which was meant to be the exotic, over-the-top element, was actually pretty familiar, while the idea of a place where common-sense secularism was normal enough to be taken for granted seemed bizarre almost to the point of illegibility. I loved the book, I think, for showing me a world where it was taken for granted, but I couldn’t quite reverse-engineer jokes that assumed the inverse of my experience. Watching the Amazon series, which was written by Gaiman—Pratchett died in 2015—I kept thinking, “It’s so fun that I finally get this,” but I also kept thinking, “So, uh, I grew up in a town where elementary-school recess was routinely more theologically extreme than this story’s vision of the antichrist.” Good Omens was less uproarious to me than any other work in my geek-pantheon of anarchic British comedy, but it was also the work that addressed the metaphysical questions of my own life most directly, and that showed me most clearly what wise, gentle, generous answers might look like. I was grateful to it when I wasn’t laughing; I’m more grateful now that I am.