“Do you ever feel like we’re living in a particularly bad time in history?” Alexandra Shitshoveler (Geraldine Viswanathan) asks her friend Maggie (Lolly Adefope). In this case, the two are sitting on a low roof watching an execution take place in their tiny town, but it also feels rather reminiscent of our lives here in 2020. “It’s time to kill a person, whoo hoo!” the executioner shouts to an excited crowd. “Do we drink when they scream or when they throw mud?” Al asks. (It’s once for screams, two for mud, and three for the old hag that shows up to yell about the devil). The next moment, they demurely hold up a stretch of sackcloth to catch the blood splatter.
It is in this unexpected environment that we find one of TV’s warmest comedies. Miracle Workers: Dark Ages is the second season of TBS’s Miracle Workers anthology (although given its odd Season 2 title, that anthology idea feels like an afterthought). The first season starred Steve Buscemi as a bored hobbyist God, whose staff at Heaven, Inc (Daniel Radcliffe, Viswanathan, Karan Soni) end up in charge of saving Earth from destruction. That cast returns for Dark Ages, which has no narrative connection to that first story, but is still truly excellent. In this new setting, Buscemi is the opposite of God—he’s a humble shit shoveler named Eddie, whose precocious daughter Al is looking for something more to life. Radcliffe plays a wonderfully and earnestly useless prince, Chauncely the “Pretty Cool,” the son of the terrifying warlord King Cragnoor The Heartless (Peter Serafinowicz).
For the most part, Dark Ages just allows its dire setting to be the joke, with references both to the limited knowledge of the world and this cripplingly difficult life (“I’m only 31 years old!” Eddie says—Buscemi is 62). Other than that, though, the beats of Dark Ages mirror a regular sitcom, and its characters speak in modern parlance. The series comes from Simon Rich, who also created the excellent FXX series Man Seeking Woman, which similarly took dating and romcom tropes and elevated them through surreal and absurdist settings and events. Here that’s a little more muted, and possibly even funnier for it. What remains, though, is a strangely sweet story that—despite the chaos and horror around it—manages to be uplifting.
Like Man Seeking Woman, Dark Ages is also a show that slyly builds its story with each episode. You could jump in at any time, but you’ll miss the nuanced character work that is happening throughout. (Like the excellent cold open that explains Soni’s Lord Vexler’s rise from humble beginnings—one of TV’s best sequences this year). Most episodes end with a typical sitcom conclusion of a main character having learned something, but the pathos that Radcliffe gives to Chauncely coupled with the relatable positivity in the face of exasperation from Viswanathan makes this more than just a corny episode end-cap. There’s something really true and heartwarming and cozy about it—you root for these characters, and you want the best for them. When you see them turning a corner, it’s actually a wonderful feeling.
Radcliffe is absolutely one of the most talented comedic actors of our age, something that doesn’t get mentioned nearly enough, and thus I don’t want to downplay the fact that the show is also hysterical. Dark Ages’ visual and verbal jokes are wonderfully sharp, mixing together modern sensibilities into this otherwise very dim world. For example, there’s a TED-like talk by an influencer at the annual Shitcon, where the concept of the hole is revealed, completely changing Eddie’s business. “Why would you want to shit in a hole when you could just do it on the floor and wait a few days to pay someone to pick it up for you?” he challenges Al. I mean, who among us??
Yes it’s good to have deep TV shows that really dive into the human psyche or hold up thoughtful mirrors to society, but sometimes, you just need the gentle triumph of Chauncely learning how to feed himself with a spoon for the first time. Dark Ages quietly does dive into the human psyche and hold a mirror up to society in smart, funny ways, but it also makes you just feel joyful to spend time with its array of outrageous yet totally familiar characters. “Do you ever feel like we’re living in a particularly bad time in history?” Yes, but Dark Ages is helping us get through it.
Miracle Workers: Dark Ages airs Tuesday nights on TBS.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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