The limited series “Miracle Workers,” which begins Tuesday on TBS, adapts creator Simon Rich’s 2012 comic novel of Heaven and Earth (but mostly Heaven), “What in God’s Name?”
Rich, whose short story collection “The Last Girlfriend on Earth” was the basis of the surreal FXX rom-com “Man Seeking Woman,” was also a famously young staff writer on “Saturday Night Live,” president of the Harvard Lampoon and one of Forbes’ “30 under 30" in 2013 and 2014.
“What in God’s Name?” was well-reviewed as a novel everywhere you would want a novel to be well-reviewed. Yet its television translation — though it comes with Lorne Michaels attached as an executive producer and stars Steve Buscemi as God and Daniel Radcliffe as a low-level angel — is lightweight and fluffy, energetic, easy to watch and even like, but as ephemeral as a soap bubble and perhaps less meaningful.
A workplace and romantic comedy whose potential outcome is the annihilation of humankind, it regularly clouds over with death and destruction, but only for a laugh. It is not really a satire, any more than “Alf” was, or “The Beverly Hillbillies,” though at times it seems about to become one. There is no particular consistency or depth to its picture of Heaven — or Heaven, Inc. — as a giant factory in which the formerly living labor into eternity maintaining the world they have left.
It is more a matter of cute ideas, albeit sometimes grim ones, strung together with a love-in-a-race-against-time plot whose strategies and payoffs are largely conventional and predictable. That is not necessarily a criticism. People do enjoy this sort of thing. As a staff writer at Pixar, Rich contributed to the popular animated feature “Inside Out,” in which people are operated, like machinery, by their emotions; there is a little of that in “Miracle Workers.”
Heaven, Inc. is not a place of pearly gates and pillowy clouds, but something more corporate, industrial and bureaucratic. There is a Department of Animals (and a joke about species going extinct because of “budget cuts”); a Department of Volcano Safety, where a needle on a gauge goes to “Erupting” while workers drink coffee and check their cellphones); one for Body Odor, another for Genitals, and so on.
Eliza (Geraldine Viswanathan) is looking for a transfer out of the Department of Dirt, pitching her case to an angelic resources person played by Angela Kinsey, from “The Office,” a series that has a thing or two in common with this one. “It has been a really rewarding experience, making millions of tiny dirt clumps, and wetting them, drying them, watching blow away,” says Eliza. “But I think I might be ready for a little more responsibility.”
The plot takes her down to the basement, to the Department of Answered Prayers — practically speaking, the name is ironic — where Craig (Radcliffe), labors alone in the dark helping people find their keys by nudging aside thousands of snowflakes, and other such minor miracles, at the rate of a few a day, as countless other prayers go unanswered. Most are branded impossible and sent routinely upstairs to God (Buscemi, in a long gray wig, in a style favored by reclusive penthouse-dwelling billionaires), where they fill his inbox, ignored.
Not by authorial accident, Craig and God are both lonely figures, though Craig is still grateful for small victories and God, an unfocused nincompoop who never gets out of sweatpants and drinks a lot of beer, is tired of everything but His idea for a restaurant combining the concepts of a Lazy Susan — the most complicated technology He is capable of operating, and therefore one of which He is inordinately fond — and a lazy river. Though He made the world and can destroy it, He is almost completely dependent on his assistants Sanjay (Karan Soni), who is desperately accommodating, and Rosie (Lolly Adefope), who is the opposite of that.
Plot happens. God decides to end the Earth and Eliza manages to stall him with a bet: If she and Craig can answer a supposedly impossible prayer, He will spare the Earth. (If she loses, the Earth goes, and she has to eat a worm, “in front of everyone, and you have to act like you like it.”) The challenge: to engineer a kiss between two very shy people, Laura (Sasha Compère) and Sam (Jon Bass). Craig, again not by authorial accident, is also shy, and timid, and falling in love with Eliza — will his natural restraint prove as valuable to their project as her impulsiveness?
At seven episodes, it doesn’t require a great investment of time, reckoned either as the three or so hours it takes to watch in a lump sum or as the couple of months over which its weekly airings will be spread. Even when it isn’t particularly funny, or when the humor is unpleasant, it is generally cheerful and always nicely acted. Buscemi as a slacker God is almost typecasting; Radcliffe, whom I think of (in a good way) as the British Elijah Wood, long ago left Harry Potter buried on the grounds of Hogwarts, playing off-kilter roles in oddball projects. Cameos by Tituss Burgess, Tim Meadows and the omnipresent Chris Parnell reward sticking around, and you may well watch to the end just to see how it all works out — and how you were probably right about it all from the beginning.
When: 10:30 p.m. Tuesdays
Rating: TV-14-DLV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and violence)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd