The best way to make a TV show about religion, especially a comedy about religion, is to dive into it so thoroughly and so ridiculously that the episodes are filled with both jokes and unique, world-building gospel.
Miracle Workers, somewhere between The Good Place’s offbeat, pseudo-religious charm and American Gods’ mythology of gods so human they’re in fact more deeply flawed, needy, and ridiculous than their worshippers, is a comedy that treats the celestial forces of the universe as a dysfunctional corporation. Series creator Simon Rich (the guy behind the eccentric, subversive rom-com Man Seeking Woman), who based Miracle Workers on his novel What in God’s Name, has found a cast that amplifies his adaptation’s assets while telling the story of a radical shift in how the powers of Heaven and Earth interact. And it’s funny. Really.
Led by Eliza (Geraldine Viswanathan), an office drone for Heaven, Inc., and Craig (Daniel Radcliffe), the sole employee of the Department of Answered Prayers, this revolution comes knocking at the door of a God (Steve Buscemi) who’s about as responsible in his treatment of Earth as most media executives are with their publications. Let the world burn, he figures. I want to have fun, for once.
Heaven, Inc. is a bummer, a throwback dystopia filled with employees trying to spice up their work days with fun outfits, if nothing else. After making a bet with the Almighty, two of them, Eliza and Craig, have to save the planet from God’s petulant self-destruction by helping two humans fall in love. The humans in question are the series’ least funny element, but the trials and errors of an ever-growing team of angelic clock-punchers makes it all worthwhile.
If last year’s delightful, sweet, and smart comedy Blockers didn’t serve as Viswanathan’s launching pad, Miracle Workers should: While the excellent and manic Radcliffe already proved his oddball comic chops with Swiss Army Man (and the best scene in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, in which he gets high on magical luck), Viswanathan’s gung-ho do-gooder is proof that she can play big just as well as she can nuanced. The co-worker odd couple show off what great comedy can come from a difference in confidence and competency, with Craig’s desperate line deliveries almost as good as Eliza’s side-eye.
The tag-team duo contends with Buscemi at his bumbliest, a petty deity whose foibles would make the Greek pantheon jealous. He can’t do anything right. He dresses like a raggedy takedown of sloppy CEO chic and can’t even operate a microwave. His very presence in the series is a punchline, and Buscemi’s unflinching dedication to be a nuisance only makes it funnier. He and his hilarious, put-upon executive archangel, Sanjay (Karan Soni)—to whom God is constantly professing his loves—are the TV-obsessed analogues to Jack Donaghy and Jonathan in the show’s surreal, 30 Rock-esque workplace battleground between idealism and cynicism.
The latter almost always wins out. Rich’s roundabout way with dark punchlines, catching you on the way out the funeral home door, are just as weird and delicious as ever. Those with too much power attempt to use it for good and end up leaving random acts of terror and suffering in their wake—playing up the ramifications as ethical slapstick. For every delicate moment of cringe, there’s a laugh-out-loud piece of cruelty that happens to an absurdly nice person, all straight-facedly reported on by God’s favorite news anchor (Mike Dunston).
The characters develop as their former mortal lives tie into their personalities and as the series—which shows off surprising legs in its hellscape of an afterlife of work—oscillates between corporate vignettes and relationship stories. We learn about who everyone was before they died, or how Rosie (Lolly Adefope) got her unenviable job as God’s assistant. Every once in a while, we get a peek behind the curtain at how the universe really works (like in the Department of Genitals), but usually the world-building takes a backseat to the small-scale, people-forward plots.
Whether it’s professional jealousy or God looking for a new prophet (which he finds through a Tinder-like dating app), there’s always some silliness at hand that’s so utterly personal it’s easy to forget the show’s set in Heaven. The humor is based on the absurdity of its setting and the groundedness of its content: Miracle Workers thinks everyone’s boss is an idiot, and there’s no bigger boss (or idiot) than God.
Miracle Workers premieres Tuesday, Feb. 12 at 10:30 p.m. on TBS
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.