Why TV like ‘Good Omens’ and ‘American Horror Story’ wants you to laugh at the apocalypse

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and TV is feeling fine. Better than fine, actually. It’s feeling pretty hilarious. 

Several new series hitting TV recently have tried ending the world, from FX’s “American Horror Story: Apocalypse” to TBS comedy “Miracle Workers,” Starz’s “Now Apocalypse” and Amazon’s “Good Omens,” which debuted on the streaming service Friday. And what they have in common, besides the whole apocalypse thing and the occasional antichrist, is a sense of humor at humanity’s ultimate demise.

Surprisingly, the end of the world has been a fruitful source of comedy over the past few months, be it Ryan Murphy’s campy, blackly comedic “AHS” take on nuclear holocaust and the devil; the surreal, sexual vibe of “Now Apocalypse;” or a bored God (played by the inimitable Steve Buscemi) ending the world for the hell of it in “Workers.”

“Omens,” adapted from a 1990 novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, has a quirky British comedic tone, where the antichrist is a mischievous middle-schooler and the only beings trying to save the planet are an angel (Michael Sheen) and a demon (David Tennant) who are best friends and terrible at their jobs. 

Martin Sheen stars as the angel Aziraphale and David Tennant as the demon Crowley in "Good Omens." (Photo: CHRIS RAPHAEL/AMAZON)

An obsession with the end of the world is nothing new on TV. Starting in 2010, “The Walking Dead” ignited a trend of doom and gloom that felt like a manifestation of anxiety after the 2008 financial crisis. “Dead” had (and still has, although with far lower ratings) a nihilistic and violent view of humanity. As the series progressed, the villains were less the marching undead and more the desperate humans who would do anything to survive. And plenty of imitators have tried to tap into its appeal, including Syfy’s “Z Nation,” TNT’s “The Last Ship,” USA’s “Colony” and short-lived network series like NBC’s “Revolution” and CBS’s “Zoo.” AMC spun off “Dead” with prequel series “Fear the Walking Dead” in 2015.

The apocalypse as portrayed by these series is slow, violent and driven by science. A zombie virus, an ordinary virus, an alien invasion, electrical failure or, in the case of “Zoo,” animals going insane  brought humanity to the brink. The weaker shows could be played for laughs (like poor “Zoo”), even when they were aiming for horror and drama. 

Steve Buscemi as God on "Miracle Workers." (Photo: Curtis Baker/TBS)

In stark contrast, more recent end-of-the-world stories are inspired by the Bible instead of George Romero. God is manifested by award-winning actors like Buscemi or Frances McDormand (who provides the almighty a voice on “Omens”). Heaven is a business, the antichrist is an environmentalist and the last survivors of humanity wear antebellum dresses color-coded in purple and gray. Life near or after the end times isn’t gritty and rough; it’s dreamlike and farcical. 

These shows are funny, in part, because there’s a comforting familiarity to ending the world with horsemen and angels, with good guys, bad guys and a big boom. It’s a well-known story with familiar characters, more akin to 2019’s cultural mood than 2010’s. We’re no longer waiting for a long, drawn-out march into dirty clothes and zombie-killing weapons. In our current era of societal unrest and political tension, the apocalypse is short, predictable and incredibly absurd. 

The anthology horror series "American Horror Story" is in its eighth season with Sarah Paulson once again returning in a lead role. Each season, the show tackles new eras or new places while maintaining a high spooky factor with some seasons inspired by real events. (Photo: Kurt Iswarienko, FX)

“It does feel slightly more in its time now than it did when we wrote it,” Gaiman says of “Omens.” “I remember when we wrote it having to put a line in about how weird it was to have an apocalypse right now when everyone is getting on so well. We didn’t really find any need to put that particular line into the TV version.”

When the world seems like it might end any day, it’s easier to laugh at it than to stockpile canned goods.

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