tv review

Miracle Workers Fades Into the So-So Beyond

What if God was one of us, and by one of us, I mean Steve Buscemi? Photo: Curtis Baker/TBS

It’s probably not fair to compare Miracle Workers, a new TBS limited series starring Steve Buscemi as an unmotivated God, to NBC’s The Good Place. But it is inevitable.

Both shows imagine a version of heaven that is dysfunctional. Both reveal that the leaders “in charge” of the great beyond have no real idea what they’re doing. Both are comedies that, by virtue of their settings, touch on philosophical and spiritual questions about the meaning of life and the degree to which free will or destiny controls human existence.

But Miracle Workers has a problem that’s all the more glaring when considered in the context of The Good Place. That problem is a lack of thorough world-building.

The first several episodes of the series, which was created by Simon Rich of Man Seeking Woman fame and debuts Tuesday, drop the audience into its version of heaven without providing much of a foundation to cushion the landing. Miracle Workers introduces a God (Buscemi), who, with his flowing gray hair and casual attitude toward his role as overseer of all living things, comes across as The Dude’s feckless brother. In the first scene, God is watching TV in an attempt to keep tabs on the many horrible things — melting ice caps, deadly forest fires, Florida men being total idiots — happening on Earth. Disgusted, he finds himself drawn to broadcasts of NASCAR drivers who thank God for his role in helping them win races. God, like a certain president, much prefers to hear compliments all day than to actually confront hardship and take steps to try and stop it.

After providing some sense of what God’s deal is, Miracle Workers unveils Heaven, Inc., the businesslike infrastructure that governs how Heaven works and where a woman named Eliza (Geraldine Viswanathan, a standout in last year’s Blockers) gets transferred out of her current role in the Department of Dirt to a new job in the Department of Answered Prayers. Her ethereal-sounding new position actually places her in a dank basement alongside a single colleague, Craig (Daniel Radcliffe), who’s been working solo for thousands of years, answering the easiest prayers possible and sending the ones stamped “impossible” to God, who, shocker, has been ignoring them because they’re too hard to resolve. When Eliza realizes that the bored, fed-up God has decided to blow up Earth so he can move on to other projects, she bets him that she can answer one of the impossible prayers. If she does it within two weeks, God agrees he will not destroy Earth after all.

That sets up the core conflict of Miracle Workers, based on Rich’s 2012 novel What in God’s Name. Yet every detail in this TV adaptation of that book tends to raise additional questions. If God can blow up Earth and consider himself to be free of his responsibilities, does that mean he doesn’t oversee the whole universe? Craig and Eliza are able to manipulate what’s happening on Earth using a system that involves monitors, joysticks, and buttons that can make certain things happen but not necessarily anything, how specifically does all that machinery work? It’s a little fuzzy. Also, how did Eliza and Craig, as well as Sanjay (Karan Soni), God’s self-promoting, reluctant executive archangel, and Rosie (Lolly Adefope), God’s overly capable assistant, get to Heaven in the first place? In one episode, when Sanjay is interviewed for a TV news show, I wondered: Is there TV in Heaven? Is it the same TV we watch on Earth? If so, wouldn’t interviewing Sanjay tip off everyone on Earth that (a) heaven really exists, and (b) apparently involves working a potentially lousy job for eternity, which is something, I would think, God wouldn’t want his loyal followers to know?

Some of these questions are answered eventually — the sixth episode, for example, provides very funny background about how God created Earth — but the answers don’t come as swiftly as they should. There’s a sense that either the writers haven’t fully reckoned with some of this backstory, or that they’ve had to streamline context and exposition to keep the plot moving. Given that they need to introduce the “save the Earth” premise and resolve it in just seven 20-minute episodes, I’m inclined to think the latter may have presented the biggest obstacle. And then I look at The Good Place, which as a continuing series has more time to establish its setting, but even in its first episode, is able to firmly establishes the idiosyncratic, inventive operating system that governs its afterlife without inviting nearly as many immediate doubts. That’s not an easy thing to do. The fact that The Good Place makes it look so easy, unfairly or not, makes the glitches in Miracle Workers all the more glaring.

The cast of Miracle Workers is certainly strong. Buscemi infuses his omniscient being with an underlying sweetness that makes his ineptitude partly forgivable. (God constantly says “I love you” to Sanjay, clearly hungry for the sentiment to be returned.) Radcliffe is so twitchy as Craig that his perpetual anxiety is practically contagious, which makes Viswanathan, who exudes pure, undiluted confidence, an ideal foil to him. But the character development feels a little thin in the initial episodes, and so does some of the humor. Presenting a scenario in which God decides he must destroy the famously agnostic Bill Maher is clever. Having God insist that Maher’s death must be delivered by blowing up his penis is less so. I’m not super-religious, but I feel certain that God has better things to do than worry about Bill Maher’s genitalia.

Miracle Workers goes in so many tonal directions that it’s hard to narrow it down to a single genre. It feels right to call it a workplace comedy, an existential comedy, and, given the focus on an unanswered prayer that involves making sure that two shy Earthlings wind up together, a rom-com. By trying to be so many things in just seven episodes, the show doesn’t land.

A television series that grapples, albeit lightly, with subjects that have confounded religious scholars and philosophers for centuries ideally should be smart and a few steps ahead of its audience. By the end, Miracle Workers almost gets there. Its last two episodes are definitely its best. Since this is apparently intended as an anthology series with additional seasons and different stories, maybe Rich & Co. can shape future episodes with more precision. For now, the initial season’s commentary on the advantages and disadvantages of freedom of choice seems to be lacking something its characters are missing, too: a stronger sense of discipline.

Miracle Workers Fades Into the So-So Beyond