Holy joke: how God became an unlikely TV comedy staple

In Miracle Workers and God Friended Me, God is threatening earthlings and using Facebook just months before Frances McDormand takes on the role

As of late, the old God is more old hat than Old Testament. The image of the serious-faced Caucasian man clad in a long, flowing white beard and an even longer white robe is passé, as is the worshipful distance religious art tends to keep from him. The TV landscape of 2019 has allowed more room for an omnipotent deity than usual, all the while demystifying God as a person and idea. Sacrilegious? Maybe, but it has made for some fine entertainment (even if the creators might be consigning themselves to hell).

Last week saw the premiere of Miracle Workers, a new sitcom from master of all things high-concept Simon Rich. The showrunner found success wedding sci-fi surrealism to romance with his previous series, Man Seeking Woman, and he mounted a quietly searing broadside against modernity with the New Yorker short story Sell Out, about a turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrant who finds himself transported to and summarily corrupted by present-day Brooklyn. Rich’s cockeyed sentimental streak meets his ambient feelings of despair about the now in his latest series, a bleak workplace comedy set at Heaven, Inc, where God reigns not-quite-supreme.

Daniel Radcliffe and Geraldine Viswanathan lead the show as a pair of low-level employees working in the Answered Prayers department, a gig that technically makes them angels without the halos, hand-sized harps or glamour. But the real scene-stealer is Steve Buscemi as the man upstairs, a coup of casting combined with expert characterization from a veteran actor. Buscemi’s nasally voice and distinctive, unmistakable eyes lend themselves to a God who has been acting less than godly these days; he’s more like a feckless CEO, all-powerful and yet utterly out of touch with what’s happening in his company.

God mostly spends his days drinking beer and watching television, “delegating” tasks to underlings smarter and more hardworking than he is. Like so many horrible bosses before him, he makes absurd demands on a whim – after watching a smarmy standup routine from noisy atheist Bill Maher, God decides to explode the comedian’s penis – and watches as his flunkies tie themselves into pretzels trying to make his tossed-off wishes reality. His attention will get stuck on an inanity and refuse to budge, as in his ongoing obsession with a starting a “lazy Susan restaurant” in which diners revolve around a large island of food on a lazy river. The show begins with his decision to incinerate Earth, citing our many crises as fair cause to call the whole thing off, like we’re an integrated vertical with a poor profit margin. Oh, and God may or may not be illiterate.

While Starz’s American Gods reverted to a more mythological interpretation of the divine, rooted in polytheistic traditions from Europe, Africa and Asia, it embraced the flaws in its holier characters just as fully. Whether Norse, Egyptian or Ethiopian, the assorted lowercase-g gods constantly give in to their baser impulses, indulging in pettiness, carnal desire or casual cruelty just to re-establish their supremacy over ordinary humans. (In far and away the most memorable sequence, the love goddess Bilquis takes the life of a sexual partner by increasing in size until the puny human can be fully subsumed by her vagina in what resembles a bizarre reverse-birth.) The source graphic novel’s author, Neil Gaiman, and showrunner Bryan Fuller were joined by their curiosity about the darker, primal, violent side of the canonized.

The latest Gaiman adaptation, a miniseries take on Good Omens due on Amazon in May, will only solidify this paradigm further. The main characters are defined by their distance from orthodoxy; an angel (Michael Sheen) and a demon (David Tennant) join forces to prevent the coming of the antichrist and the destruction of all creation on Earth, in no small part because the celestial beings have gotten rather accustomed to life among the mortals (Frances McDormand will be voicing God). Their impulses, vanities, and shortcomings place them far outside Judeo-Christian tradition.

Brandon Micheal Hall in God Friended Me
Brandon Micheal Hall in God Friended Me. Photograph: CBS Photo Archive/CBS via Getty Images

The exception proving the new rule of compromised gods arrived last year in the form of God Friended Me, of which CBS ordered a second season just last month. The successful dramedy takes the same “mission to do good” structure as cult favorite My Name Is Earl, but instead of ill-defined “karma” compelling the main character to perform kind deeds for strangers, the new series actually uses the G-word. Through Facebook, an account labeled only as “God” gives instruction from on high for an atheist podcaster (Brandon Micheal Hall) to save the souls in his orbit. The showrunners have made clear that they will refrain from specifying the nature of this God, that he’s the same object of worship for Christians as Jews as Muslims, united in his aloofness and inscrutability. The show revolves around the difficulty of discerning what a force that’s present but not present wants from you, a far cry from the perceptible, straightforward gods who are more character than concept.

Certainty rarely has a place in religion, but these shows have suggested that being able to see and hear and talk back to God wouldn’t bring a person clarity anyhow. The old-fashioned morality of God Friended Me finds more certainty in the rightness and goodness of a picture of a cloud hosted by Mark Zuckerberg than those actually standing face to face with the Almighty in Miracle Workers. Rich’s most potent notion of all is that definitive proof of God would definitively prove he doesn’t know what he’s doing. What if, as they say, God was one of us?


Charles Bramesco

The GuardianTramp

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