Carl Curtis on the star-studded new comedy series set in ‘Heaven Inc’
Has Hollywood ever really cared about God – I mean the true God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost? Probably not. The great god Mammon is another business entirely. The movie and now television industries exist for one reason: to make money – pots of it. But regarding God, producers, directors and screenwriters have not been stupid: as long as Americans appeared largely Christian, they knew how to please ’em. Ben-Hur, The Sign of the Cross, King of Kings and myriad lesser films drew large crowds and, of course, made money. The Christian audience was happy, the Hollywood moguls became rich, so who could complain?
Times have changed. Possibly the last great biblical epic was 1959’s Ben-Hur, and, allowing for Chariots of Fire (respectful of Christianity), the unique phenomenon of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (self-financed), and the modest success of films such as Risen (2016), the market for the Christian message, biblical or otherwise, has cratered.
Angels are another matter. Somehow people who are doubtful about God or prefer a generic deity without the taint of dogma, chapter and verse find angels vastly entertaining. Hollywood has long profited on the taste, as The Bishop’s Wife and the various re-makes of Here Comes Mr Jordan testify. The small screen has fared well with them too: Highway to Heaven, Touched By an Angel, and, if you lean towards the demonic, Lucifer.
Airing in the US on TBS (whose founder Ted Turner once likened himself to a cross between Jiminy Cricket and Jesus Christ), Miracle Workers, written by Simon Rich, is an eight-part series with plenty of angels and, to spice things up, God Himself. It also features prayers; that is, if you don’t expect too much orthodoxy.
The story opens in “Heaven Inc”, a patchwork of oil refinery, Amazon warehouse and swanky penthouse. “God” lives in the penthouse, but it would have made more sense if he’d resided in the upper floor of a Las Vegas hotel because “He” (Steve Buscemi) looks weirdly like the late Howard Hughes: a fabulously rich, rather hard to reach, and, finally, mysterious billionaire – more or less the way many think about God.
As episode one opens, “God” un-deifically watches television – or many televisions since He’s blessed with a wall of screens as high as our eyes can see: omniscience, you might say. Flipping through the channels, God sees a series of disasters, by and large environmental: melting ice caps and massive forest fires. For Him there is but one answer: destroy the world. Now, the real God thought something similar in Genesis 6, but He elected to save one man and his family, with enough animal life to replenish the earth once the waters receded.
Not so in Miracle Workers. God will incinerate the world and use His infinite time creating a restaurant called Lazy Susan’s, a chef-populated island surrounded by a lazy river, serving food somewhere in space.
Eliza Hunter (Geraldine Viswanathan) has successfully applied for a transfer from the Department of Dirt to the Department of Answered Prayers. Her new place of work lies somewhere in the darkest, drippiest catacombs of Heaven Inc and has, as far as Eliza can tell, a staff of one, Craig (Daniel Radcliffe, scruffily bearded), who spends his time at a computer terminal dealing with “nail-biting” crises: people looking for lost car keys or missing gloves. “Impossible” prayers of, say, someone facing a hungry wolf, go via pneumatic tube (talk about spiritual!) to God Himself, but when Eliza overloads the tube, she panics and rushes to God’s penthouse to urge Him to settle the world’s problems directly. He agrees: blow it up.
That solution Eliza won’t accept, so she bargains. If she can get a positive answer to one urgent prayer, will He relent? He will, but only if she succeeds in two weeks, and agrees to eat a worm – with gusto – if she fails. The impossible prayer involves the course of true love between two teens, inter-racial, and – with a tip of the hat to tradition – of the opposite sex. Although the opportunities for cliché are not infinite, they are, at least, ample. Thus Craig and she begin their quest to save Earth, ending episode one.
Radcliffe, Buscemi and Viswanathan handle the material well, with a wink that indicates a shared joke, but what the material is remains a thorny question. Satire seems altogether too lofty; farce is better. However, if one recalls the dictum of Jonathan Lynn (writer for the great Yes Minister), that comedy, if “sufficiently funny, ascends into farce”, then Miracle Workers fails miserably. That question aside, could the show be just plain blasphemy? Maybe. Count on it to make money.
Dr Carl C Curtis III is a contributing editor at The Christian Review and professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg. He teaches Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Homer, Virgil, Dante and cinema studies