Grappling with the Afterlife
Review: Miracle Workers
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Steve Buscemi, Karan Soni, Geraldine Viswanathan
I have to admit to watching Miracle Workers initially because a comedy about God deciding to get rid of earth because of all the bad stuff that is happening seemed intriguing. Ok, well perhaps it was mainly because “comedy” in that last sentence seems at odds with the rest of the synopsis.
After watching the first three episodes of the limited series I have to admit to feeling like the party started and I arrived late.
The series is based on a book called What in God’s Name? by Simon Rich, and it feels a little like there is a lot of shorthand going on.
Let me explain: Heaven as imagined in the series has a very low tech aesthetic, read circa 1995 terminals (done well recently in Maniac, but never fully explained here), God is portrayed as a cranky octogenarian with technology issues, and God’s angels are portrayed as millennial eye-rollers who seem intent on getting their way no matter the world-altering consequences.
Perhaps all these elements would be more interesting if there was more of an explanation for this incarnation of heaven. Unlike The Good Place, which seems the closest show to compare it to, the world-building and rules are never really explained.
Don’t get me wrong, the cast of Miracle Workers is excellent. Steve Buscemi infuses his omniscient being with a penchant for watching TV, an inability to microwave and an underlying sweetness that makes his ineptitude forgivable. He constantly says “I love you” to his assistant angel Sanjay (Karan Soni), clearly hungry for the sentiment to be returned. That in itself is a trait I can identify as God-like in that God does indeed want us to love Him, even if it here he seems to be portrayed as a little needy.
Perhaps the casting coup is Daniel Radcliffe who is so twitchy as Craig an angel responsible for answering prayers, that his perpetual anxiety is practically contagious. And this makes his offsider played by Geraldine 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 humour. A joke in an early episode about well known celebrity atheist Bill Maher’s nether regions just really isn’t very funny.
While all these parts may indicate an entertaining whole, the execution isn’t nearly as interesting or thought provoking as The Good Place which was able to establish its rules for the afterlife from its initial episode. And this might be harsh but there are a lot of comparisons. Both shows imagine a version of the afterlife 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.
Perhaps some of these questions will be answered in subsequent episodes (we have only reviewed three) but there’s a sense that either the writers haven’t fully reckoned with some of the backstory for the show, or that they’ve had to streamline context and exposition to keep the plot moving in its very short twenty minute episodes.
Miracle Workers doesn’t really have a genre but if I had to pigeon hole it feels like a workplace existential comedy and, given the focus on an unanswered prayer that involves making sure that two shy earthlings wind up together, a rom-com.
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.
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 is currently streaming weekly on Stan.