Like a lot of failed sitcoms, CBS’ new “Living Biblically” probably seemed like a good idea at the time.
Inspired by A.J. Jacobs’ 2007 best-seller “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible” — a title that works as a tidy elevator pitch itself — the show arriving Monday centers on Chip (Jay R. Ferguson, best known as the amply bearded Stan Rizzo from “Mad Men”), a newspaper film critic and lapsed Catholic who follows in Jacobs’ footsteps to enter a sticky world of ancient absolutes to the chagrin of his friends, family, and so on. Presumably, the facial hair will make a comeback too.
Except in the case of Jacobs — the writer of similar journalistic gadget-plays such as attempting to outsource his life and embarking on an effort to read every volume of Encyclopedia Britannica — the dip into the Bible was driven by a book that also examined other perspectives among the devout about faith and religious practice. Produced by “Big Bang Theory’s” Johnny Galecki, “Living Biblically” flips the concept by placing Chip at a personal crossroads between the death of a best friend and the prospect of impending fatherhood, two factors that lead him to follow the Bible in the hopes of becoming a better person.
While Chip is eventually encouraged to turn his efforts into a column at his paper, the motivational switch seems driven by an urge for a tidier narrative, which is part of the problem. “Living Biblically” adheres to sitcom tropes so strictly, it’s as if those have also been written in stone, perhaps somewhere on a CBS backlot.
You have the preternaturally patient wife (Lindsey Kraft), who weathers the complications spurred by her husband’s impulsive pursuit; the wisecracking coworker (Tony Rock); the intimidating boss (a wasted Camryn Manheim); and even a local bar where Chip talks theological matters with a willing rabbi and a priest (David Krumholtz and Ian Gomez, respectively), whom he dubs his “God squad.”
Centuries of religion and decades of television have proved such strictures can be useful guides if coupled with good works — in this case, strong jokes and writing. But that’s where “Living Biblically” falls short.
A spiritual crisis of the kind that would lead someone to return to their faith is rich material from a character standpoint, but you never get the sense that Chip is much more than a tourist. His Bible study leads him to consider his phone a false idol in the second episode, which is a promising idea, but “Living Biblically” mostly uses it as a way to show it’s hard to live without one in 2018.
And rather than giving Chip a moral compass strong enough to tell a “bro-code”-spouting adulterer in the office to shut his mouth in the first episode, Chip eventually follows the Old Testament’s way, which strangely feels far less direct. In the early going, the show’s conceit is less of a means to consider faith, self-improvement and how both mingle with modern life than it is a desire to be told what to do.
For the most part, Chip doesn’t seem to be finding religion as much as a few quirky new habits. Though his faith seems renewed in the last of the three episodes CBS made available for preview (featuring JoBeth Williams as his judgmentally atheist mother-in-law), his advocating for surrendering to something greater through prayer is undercut by the episode’s simplistic reinforcement of the practice as a means to get what you want.
But even setting aside the show’s lack of interest in the complexity of faith, its greatest sin is simply not being funny enough. The characters are too thin and familiar to generate laughs on their own, and some jokes rely too heavily on references while others just don’t make sense. “Who are you? Kramer?” his priest asks as Chip barges into someone’s confessional, having evidently not yet discovered “The Golden Rule.”
“Come on, you gotta have faith,” Chip implores to his wife in the series’ pilot. “What about sunsets, or Season Four of ‘The Wire’”? I’ve listened to that line multiple times and still can’t figure out why it gets a laugh.
The show’s failures are a shame because religion is a powerful enough presence in our culture to be approached with honesty and genuine wit. The British import “Rev” comes to mind as a compelling recent example, as well as HBO’s stand-up comedy-centric “Crashing,” which follows its own bent spiritual journey. To do it right, however, you have to be willing to break a few rules.
When: 9:30 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)