When he first started learning about God during his days in Hebrew school, Simon Rich was truly frightened by what he was reading. It wasn’t that whole “wrath of God” thing that kept him up at night. Rather, it was this one particular phrase that cropped up in the Book of Genesis.
“It said that God created us in his image and I just thought, ‘Yikes! What if that’s true?’” says Rich, creator and executive producer of the TBS series “Miracle Workers.” “If we resemble God, there’s a chance that God resembles us. And that could be a problem. He was one of the most absurd characters I’d ever come across. He was petty and vindictive, very puerile and obsessed with penises. In his first conversation with Abraham, he brings up circumcision even before morality or faith. It turns out he’s a deeply human character, flawed and vulnerable but with all this power.”
That may not be what we want to see in a deity, but apparently it does make for a pretty compelling television character. Not only is the notion of a very relatable Almighty central to “Miracle Workers,” in which a bathrobe-wearing, socially awkward God (played by Steve Buscemi) decides in a fit of pique to blow up Earth, he’s also a central figure in numerous other current shows. (Or at least the idea of God is.)
In AMC’s “Preacher,” the story of a rogue man of the cloth searching for God after he goes missing, the Lord is like your dad in the thick of a midlife crisis, sporting an earring while cruising on a motorcycle with a busty babe by his side. Meanwhile, on “God Friended Me,” a never-seen Lord appears to be using social media just like the rest of us on the planet. However, his account is trying to persuade atheist Miles (Brandon Micheal Hall) to be more charitable and help those in need. And in NBC’s afterlife comedy “The Good Place,” there’s no particular Omnipotent One to be found but there are plenty of celestial civil servants (notably Maya Rudolph as the Judge, who decides whether people can get into heaven) running an afterlife with all the efficiency and empathy of the DMV.
Although these series go about it in very different ways, they’re all ultimately trying to accomplish a similar spiritual goal: humanize the creator of humanity. It’s not about making fun of the idea of God. Instead, it’s all about taking that concept of a supreme being and turning it into something that’s easier for us mere mortals to wrap our brains around.
For “Preacher” executive producer Sam Catlin, “I guess the appeal to something like this is that the stakes couldn’t be higher, this question of [what] is it all about? What I think we’ve enjoyed working on with ‘Preacher’ is that we get to ask these super-serious questions in a way that isn’t at all serious. We don’t assume we’ve provided any new or profound answers but the questions have been fun to ask. In our last season, however, as we get closer to the truth of God, he becomes less and less funny and sad, and more like a wrathful deity.”
“I wouldn’t say that our show is religious satire,” adds Rich of “Miracle Workers.” “We never specifically say our God is the God of the Bible. On our show, the cosmology is closer to something out of a Douglas Adams novel. Our goal with this character is to share a vision of God that’s consistent with our experiences as human beings on planet Earth. If the founder and therefore CEO of our world is an incompetent, childish maniac, it would explain a lot.”
“Miracle Workers” and “Preacher” are overt with the way they normalize their vision of God. “God Friended Me” is more subtle. In its first season, the series has deliberately avoided giving a glimpse of whoever it is that’s claiming to be God while sending Miles those friend requests.
“We haven’t answered whether it’s God or just a person sending these suggestions,” says executive producer Bryan Wynbrandt. “That ambiguity is the core ethos of both ourselves and our show.” Adds his fellow exec Steven Lilien, “As we explore the character, the idea of who is behind the account sending the messages becomes less and less important as we get far more interested in how they are changing people’s lives. We’re more about exploring the heaven on Earth.”
Wynbrandt figures audiences turn to shows with a godlike being because “this is the biggest question of all. Are we here by cosmic accident or is this all part of a grand design by a superior being watching over us?” While God may not yet have shown his face on this show that bears his name, there’s no denying that there is some sort of familiar, relatable being behind all that’s going on.
“The Good Place,” however, has opted for “sort of an analytic, ‘Moneyball’” approach to God and the afterlife, according to executive producer Michael Schur. Rather than have a singular being keeping things running smoothly on Earth, the show portrays humanity as being an impartial game where people’s actions earn or lose points and affect where they get to spend eternity.
“The concept is that ethical behavior, and not any one set of religious beliefs, is the guiding force behind one’s ultimate fate,” Schur explains. “The show has certain figures that oversee various realms, as well as an impartial Judge, a Head Accountant and an Architect played by Ted Danson, but there is not one ‘God’ figure from who the tenets of the system derive.”
As entertaining as that might be for Schur and his writers (“We also get to chew on some pretty meaty ideas, about philosophy and psychology, which isn’t typical for a half-hour show”), this demystification of God is also potentially problematic considering how seriously society takes its religious precepts. Which is why literally putting a human face to the Almighty might be just as effective as a lifetime of Sunday school when it comes to strengthening viewers’ spiritual faith.
Says Schur, “Perhaps there’s no protests because the thought of getting to the afterlife and being greeted by Ted Danson is such a pleasant thought, even religious dogmatists can’t really object.”