Workplace comedies like WKRP In Cincinnati, Cheers, NewsRadio, Taxi, 30 Rock and countless other sitcoms have detailed the highs and lows of working for a living, but the new TBS sitcom Miracle Workers takes the idea to a different plane of existence: Heaven. It’s the realm of God and angels, the entities whose job it is to oversee Earth and humanity, even as both seemingly tumble closer toward the brink of destruction with every passing day. As the new comedy proposes, God’s more or less asleep at the wheel, ready to scrap the whole humankind experiment in favor of a restaurant concept based in part around the satisfaction He gets from using a lazy susan to serve his snacks. In other words, the world and everyone (and everything) on it is doomed, unless some enterprising and earnest angels can convince God that the experiment is worth saving.
Miracle Workers comes from Simon Rich, author, former SNL writer, and creator of FXX’s surreal and sweetly funny Man Seeking Woman, and is based on his novel What in God’s Name. Like Man Seeking Woman, this new series eschews a story grounded in reality and in doing so arrives at the source of its humor. Whether or not that brand of comedy, coupled with starring roles from Steve Buscemi (as God) and Daniel Radcliffe (as an overworked angel in the unanswered prayers department named Craig), will be enough to get people’s eyeballs on the show for the next few weeks remains to be seen, but at the start of the limited series, it’s a strange and sometimes delightful combination whose immediate appeal is hard to deny.
The basic joke behind Miracle Workers is that God has lost interest in humankind, has become lax in his duties, and that’s why the world sucks. (Either that or He simply had no idea what He was doing in the first place.) But there’s a secondary source of humor in that Rich sees heaven as Heaven, Inc., a dysfunctional bureaucratic machine held up by mountains of red tape and low incentives for making a difference where it would matter the most. As such, Craig has worked for the past few millennia answering what rather simple prayers he can, like helping people find their car keys or toiling for hours so a guy can find a glove (and then go off and murder people). Meanwhile, those prayers he’s not authorized to handle (because he’d be breaking the laws of physics) are labeled “impossible” and are subsequently sent up the communications ladder to the Almighty, where they go unanswered.
Craig seems to have reconciled himself to the drudgery of his workaday life, forgoing having friends who would join him for a burger after work and any semblance of a personal life because that’s just the way things work. But the arrival of Eliza (Geraldine Viswanathan, Blockers) helps shake Craig out of his office drone doldrums, when she inadvertently gives God the idea of blowing up the Earth in two weeks’ time, unless she can perform one miracle. And in keeping with Rich’s past interest in the genre of romantic comedy, she and Craig are tasked with getting two humans, Laura (Sasha Compere) and Sam (Jon Bass) to kiss.
It’s a simple enough conceit that Rich aims to make infinitely more complicated, and in doing so finds a charming source of comedy to which the show can return to time and again. The idea is, on the surface, not unlike Danny Boyle’s 1997 violent, nihilistic romantic comedy A Life Less Ordinary, but Rich’s writing, as well as the show’s cast — which also includes Deadpool’s Karan Soni as God’s right-hand angel, Sanjay — are so effortlessly sweet natured that such a comparison never manages to go more than skin deep, though comparisons to NBC’s The Good Place are deserved and sure to be much more commonplace.
Instead of Ted Danson’s charming demon in a bow tie, however, Miracle Workers has Buscemi as a cranky, depressed, beer-swilling, and slightly Old Testament rendition of God. Donning a white-haired wig, Buscemi looks perpetually disheveled and more than once he throws around that sneer he perfected over five seasons as the constantly annoyed Nucky Thompson on Boardwalk Empire. It serves him well here, as an ill-tempered God, who can create the heavens and the Earth in six days but can’t seem to construct a workable grabbing implement for his idiotic lazy river restaurant concept, makes for a humorous (possibly blasphemous) take on the Almighty. But it’s a take that, before the first episode is up, does tend to feel too much like a plot device.
That becomes increasingly evident as Craig and Eliza journey to Earth to discover getting two humans who like one another to actually kiss is harder than it seems. The distance the show puts between God and his two eager angels restricts the humor somewhat, as the two storylines diverge in ways that isolate the desires of both parties and leaves them sometimes searching for a punchline. Still, like Man Seeking Woman, the show seems intent on executing a charm offensive, which makes it easy to enjoy the show for what it is, even if it’s not necessarily as ambitious as it first seems to be.
Miracle Workers continues next Tuesday with ’13 Days’ @10:30pm on TBS.