There is no question that the savior of this ‘series’ is the fact Neil Gaiman himself pounded the keyboard to turn out the script. Anyone else would have mucked it up horribly. If you’ve read the book you know turning it into a video production was a tall order; it’s difficult to get all the nuances available in print on to the screen. For the most part this Amazon production has to be called a success.
So let’s get nasty and find the faults, shall we?
First of all there is the modern failing of going a bit overboard with the special effects. This seems to be something producers simply can’t stop themselves from doing. It’s bad enough when working with a show that’s basically dross anyway, but when you use it to damage an excellent story you’re guilty of narrative crime that should earn you eternity in cinematic hell. Fortunately this is really only very bad at the very end. But it is bad.
The second biggest problem is in some of the casting. I hate to say it, but there’s a pretty obvious helping of political-correctness in filling some of the parts. It’s like some overly sensitive casting directed said “ooh! We need another black woman in here to show how modern and liberal we are”. Gods dammit, I’m a liberal and this was just hitting me in the brain like a pitchfork. Read the damn book and accept that sometimes characters are white males, okay? In fact in some instances they seem to have women trying to play men. It’s particularly funny when they’re being demons as they utterly fail to pull it off. Men are simply more naturally demonic. Try arguing with that.
Most of the casting is at least acceptable if not absolutely spot-on. A bit of the directing of the main characters was overdone, and they should have let the actors have their lead there; they know their craft well enough. Look at David Tenant’s ‘snake walking’. Subtle. Sam Taylor Buck is perfect as Adam, although Amma Ris as Pepper is a casting error. She pulls it off, but the Them are supposed to mirror the Horsemen and they don’t. They could have changed War to be like Pepper, but they got War perfect to the book to begin with. The other two aren’t even given a chance to demonstrate much personality at all. More time should have been spent building the characters of Brian and Wensleydale so the audience would empathize with them, and so that the characters were mirror their appropriate opposites. They could have cut out some special effects to fit this in.
As far as the Horsemen are concerned, War started out perfect, Famine was entirely believable (well-played by a black man – they could have made his counterpart, Wensleydale, a black boy to keep the mirror thing going), and Pollution was weird – not well-cast or played. I suspect the actress spent her whole time wondering what the hells she was doing there. Death was a giant disaster; badly depicted and poorly voiced. I could have done better myself, frankly. The fact they changed these characters’ appearances toward the end was also a mistake; there was no reason to do it.
Two of the oddest bits of miscasting are … the dog and the car. How’s that for failing to get it right? The dog (Dog) should have started out as a larger breed before fitting to Adam’s plan. As-was it was bad special effects that didn’t look believable. Afterward he was just okay. I understand from the ‘liner notes’ that the Bentley was switched to a 1934 model to get the “right look”. Well it isn’t right at all. You could see Crowley driving a 1929 4 1/2 Litre or Super Six, but not the luxury saloon depicted. It just doesn’t make sense for the character.
On the whole the demons come off more realistic than the angels. Good heavens they should have made some sensible behavioral distinction between the two. Angels would have been simple and good and confused, rather like Aziraphale. Gabriel almost made it, up until the end when they ruined his character with a single inappropriate word.
Overall the scenes and pacing work, except where they get confused about whether this is a serial (it is) or a movie (it isn’t) and the tossed-in flashbacks, although not excessive, do nothing for the narrative. It would have worked better as a long movie rather than a miniseries. Or they could have spent more time on scenes important to the story and less on superfluous special effects that add nothing. Although I quite liked the lizard on Ligur’s head. Very fashionable. It will probably catch on in popular culture.
One of the best bits is the title sequence, of all things. Some slightly silly and simplistic animation set to what I believe is a musical style known as “La Folia” (reminiscent of a piece in The Addams Family movie) which roughly mirrors the story elements and just seems suitable. Like a comic version of an Edward Gorey work.
It’s nice to note Mr. Gaiman tied up some loose ends for us that the book doesn’t, and he did it in the style of the original. “You know what to do; do it with style!” say Crowley, and he did.
On the whole it’s quite a good, entertaining watch. I think Mr. Pratchett would have been pleased. I’m not sure the same can be said for the other attempts at bringing his works to the screen.
(Note: I’ve taken pains to leave out a lot of detail that might spoil it for viewers, and in doing so I’ve left out a few issues that should be commented on. But as no one is paying me for a professional opinion, bugger it.)
Addendum: as of this writing it’s available for “pre-order” on DVD from Amazon, but at a rather substantial price. Although I might buy it one day, not for almost $30. It’s good, but not that good.