This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
Regular readers of my TV reviews know how much I love NBC’s “The Good Place,” far and away the best program on network television and one of the best comedies of the decade. It’s somewhat heartening to see that show’s influence all over TBS’ “Miracle Workers,” another program that imagines the great beyond as a bureaucratic nightmare complete with petty personality conflicts and embedded commentary on what it really means to be human and “good.” However, having seen five (of seven) episodes of “Miracle Workers,” I’m struck even more by the degree of difficulty pulled off by “The Good Place,” a show that never forgets to be hysterically funny while it’s also being fascinating in its philosophy. Neither department—the philosophy or the humor—creates the same impact in “Miracle Workers” despite the presence of a strong cast and interesting concept. Most of all, no matter what show you choose to compare this one to, it suffers from the biggest problem a comedy can have: it’s just not funny enough.
Simon Rich, who created the underrated “Man Seeking Woman” on FX, adapts the novel What in God’s Name in “Miracle Workers,” which basically reimagines Heaven as a neverending string of office departments at a place called "Heaven Inc." Over there is the Dept. of Genitals and the Dept. of Volcano Safety, and over here in the basement is the Dept. of Answered Prayers, where Craig (Daniel Radcliffe) works a lowly, horrible existence. He’s not allowed to directly answer prayers, forced to make tiny impacts on the world below to give people what they need when it’s even remotely possible to do so. In other words, he can move dead leaves one at a time to answer a prayer to find lost keys, but he’s not handling the big stuff. He stamps those as “Impossible” and sends them on up to God, played as a bathrobe-wearing variation on Jeff Bridges’ The Dude by the too-good-for-this-show Steve Buscemi.
God has stopped really caring about Earth, only spurred to action when he decides it’s time to smite the religion-hating Bill Maher (one of the only truly funny bits although even it goes on too long and becomes an extended dick joke). A new angel named Eliza (Geraldine Viswanathan of “Blockers” and Sundance hit “Hala”) mistakenly convinces God that it’s time to give up on the experiment known as Earth. God decides he’s going to blow it up, but Eliza convinces him to issue a stay if Eliza and Craig can answer an “impossible prayer.” They choose one from a historically difficult category—the love prayer—and try to gently influence the paths of Earthbound Sam (Jon Bass) and Laura (Sasha Compere) into one another.
Clearly, there’s enough plot for a seven-episode limited series, but “Miracle Workers” struggles to balance its narrative with its running gags and extended ensemble—I didn’t even mention Karan Soni as God’s put-upon assistant. There’s both too much show here and not enough of it is funny. Throwaway bits like God not knowing how to use a microwave are much better than every time the show has to return to its forced love story. And the world-building is disappointing as well as most of the show takes place at Craig’s depressing work station or in God’s man cave. It’s a show that you keep waiting to click into gear, to get funnier, smarter, more enjoyable—and there are glimpses of it in Buscemi’s hang-dog approach and Radcliffe’s quirky performance—but it never quite gets there. It’s a TV prayer left unanswered.
Five episodes screened for review.
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