At first blush, “God Friended Me” is an easy target for mockery. Its title promises something wacky and miraculous, with a bonus social- media tie-in for relevance. In actuality, the new CBS drama is almost too earnest to ridicule, wrapping its absurd premise with the kind of moralistic sincerity that has fueled broadcast network dramas for decades. It’s “Touched by an Angel” reimagined for the millennial generation — or at least that’s what “God Friended Me” is trying to be, with decidedly mixed results.
When a mysterious “God” Facebook account friends skeptical atheist Miles (Brandon Micheal Hall) out of nowhere, he’s shaken to find that it seems to anticipate the future by encouraging him to help people who need it, whether they know it or not. Complicating matters is the fact that Miles is also trying to sell a podcast about atheism in which he’d challenge people of faith on their views. This was complex enough before, especially since Miles’ father (Joe Morton) is a reverend who can’t understand his son’s insistence on preaching a lack of gospel. But now, with this seemingly all-knowing Facebook account watching and trying to dictate his every move, Miles finds himself more confused than ever. (He also assumes he’s being stalked by an expert hacker, briefly teasing an intriguing bizarro horror version of “God Friended Me” that a cable network might have tried.)
In the attempt to flesh out Miles and his twenty-something world, creators Steven Lilien and Bryan Wynbrandt throw in as many millennial buzzwords as they can. Miles’s co-worker and best friend Rakesh (Suraj Sharma) complains about dating apps, insisting that “no one uses Tinder anymore” with a knowing eye roll on a show that nevertheless insists twenty-somethings are still avid users of Facebook. Miles is trying to sell his podcast to SiriusXM under the moniker “The Millennial Prophet.” And by the time the God account points him in the direction of Cara (Violett Beane), a writer who hasn’t turned in one of her signature viral think pieces for six weeks but somehow maintains a corner office, the show has itself a whole grab bag of millennial clichés that never add up to anything especially believable.
It’s telling that even on a series featuring a possibly omniscient being nudging people to do good through the insidious act of suggesting friends on Facebook, the most confusing aspect of “God Friended Me” is the question of who, exactly, it’s for. Its premise, its characters, and the hoops the drama tries to jump through to make them work are all ostensibly geared towards a millennial audience without demonstrating much of a familiarity with it at all. And if the show is trying to appeal to a typical CBS audience — which generally skews more towards Gen X than Z — it’s hard to imagine that those viewers will particularly care if Cara can get back to the top of her website’s traffic board.
The most frustrating aspect of these unconvincing attempts to depict the Social Media Generation is that there’s a potentially winning, bleeding- heart- earnest drama pulsing right underneath that doesn’t need any of them. Yes, the premise is ridiculous, but some of the best moments happen when the show leans fully into its own cheesiness and embraces the awesome storytelling power of pushing a person to be more decent. And thanks in large part to Hall, a charismatic actor who can make even “The Millennial Prophet” sound halfway convincing, rooting the show in Miles’ journey of having and losing his faith makes for some truly meaningful moments. If “God Friended Me” can convince viewers to get past its premise and develop the wholehearted drama fueling it, the series just might find its way.
Drama: CBS, 60 mins. (13 episodes; one reviewed.)
Cast: Brandon Micheal Hall, Violett Beane, Suraj Sharma, Javicia Leslie, Joe Morton.
Crew: Executive producers: Steven Lilien, Bryan Wynbrandt, Greg Berlanti, Sarah Schechter, Marcos Siega.