‘Miracle Workers’ Review: Praise Steve Buscemi as a Bumbling God
Steve Buscemi probably isn’t the first actor who comes to mind to play God. James Earl Jones, Meryl Streep, Sir Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett — you want someone with noble and/or mysterious bearing to front any project where the Almighty is a significant character. Buscemi, wonderful though he always is, seems at best a candidate to play Lucifer, and more likely some frustrated lesser minion of heaven or hell.
But the God that Buscemi pays in TBS’ new comedy series Miracle Workers (Tuesdays at 10:30 p.m. ET) is no traditional deity. This is a God who’s let himself go to seed right along with his creation, humanity — assuming either were all that great to begin with. Buscemi’s God is like if your uncle who keeps forwarding you chain emails also had omnipotent powers, but couldn’t use them any more successfully than he can the remote control. And for this extremely fallible lord, Buscemi couldn’t be more perfect.
Miracle Workers creator Simon Rich, adapting his book What In God’s Name, posits that heaven is actually an enormous factory filled with departments that oversee every aspect of life on Earth. Some jobs are more inspiring than others — a woman who works in the Department of Male Nipples admits she has to get high to get through work every day — but most of the angels have resigned themselves to the idea that the world, like their highly distractible boss, will never quite live up to its potential. So when God announces plans to blow up the Earth and start over with a new project — a restaurant built inside a lazy river ride — the only one who objects all that strongly is Eliza (Geraldine Viswanathan), newly assigned to the Department of Answered Prayers, where her co-worker Craig (Daniel Radcliffe) mostly helps people find lost keys and gloves.
The first season builds itself around a bet that Eliza makes with God, where she has two weeks to answer a seemingly impossible prayer in order to save all of creation. Once the stakes are introduced, the story moves largely on two parallel tracks: Eliza and Craig struggling to get two painfully shy people (Sasha Compère and Jon Bass) to kiss (thus answering their respective prayers to have a shot with each other), and God’s top assistants Sanjay (Karan Soni) and Rosie (Lolly Adefope) struggling to indulge their idiot boss’ every whim in the closing days of life on Earth. The God half of things is a delight. Rich and Buscemi both lean hard into the idea of God as a bumbling failson (Chris Parnell plays his disapproving father in a later episode) getting perpetually distracted by some petty beef. (After hearing Bill Maher disparage the very idea of religious belief, God orders Sanjay not only to kill the HBO host but to do so by exploding his penis, which leads to several visits to the Department of Genitals.) Where Rich’s last show, Man Seeking Woman, trafficked in various surreal ideas with a short creative shelf life (say, that the hero’s ex was dating Hitler), Buscemi’s petulant incompetence feels just as vital and hilarious at the end of the season as at the start.
Because God has some celestial form of ADD, those scenes benefit from being wall-to-wall jokes, where the Eliza and Craig half of the show is burdened by plot, on top of neither character being as innately humorous as their all-powerful employer. The show has fun with the limited nature of their capabilities — because they can’t provide proof of the existence of an afterlife, they’re often restricted to targeted breezes and the occasional push of the “Burst Appendix” button on their control panel — and the butterfly effect of expending so much of Heaven Inc.’s resources on these two humans. But both angels seem as hampered in characterization as they do in supernatural strength — he’s an anxious beta male, she’s a dangerously impulsive optimist, again and again — so that the series’ narrative spine begins to feel like a sketch that’s lingered too long. (The Good Place, to which this show will inevitably be compared by many, has a much stronger balance between exploring the humanity of the afterlife and riffing on the ridiculousness of it all.)
The Buscemi stories, though, are very funny. And there are enough sharp details drawn in the margins of the factory (where Angela Kinsey from The Office runs HR) to suggest a more promising second season. Hopefully, future Miracle Workers episodes would put the plot on hold and have fun with the core conceit of heaven as just another soul-crushing job in service of a boss who knows far less about how things work than the people who work for him.