It seems entirely possible that “Living Biblically” exists just to set up the elaborate one-liner at the end of the pilot: “A priest, a rabbi, a lapsed Catholic, and a nonbeliever walk into a bar…” But like the joke, the sitcom’s setup is labored — and the payoff is yet to be seen. “Living Biblically” follows the moral quandaries of Chip (Jay R. Ferguson), a film critic who decides to live by the letter of the Word after his best friend suddenly dies. His wife, Leslie (Lindsey Kraft), an atheist, is unimpressed with his new trajectory, but tolerant — and without further ado, Chip’s life becomes a series of theological puzzles. No lying, no taking God’s name in vain, but also, no mixing fabrics, and an exhortation to stone adulterers? Chip’s confused, but cheerfully determined. (Leslie, to her credit, draws a line when Chip suggests Beyoncé is a false idol: “There is nothing false about Beyoncé.”)
Believe it or not, there is something quite charming about the sitcom. It centers Christianity in a way that is never examined, but manages to do so in a way that feels rooted in Chip’s particular journey. Faith is a tricky topic for pop culture, so most entertainment outright avoids it — even though nine out of 10 Americans believe in God, according to Gallup, and fully 70 percent identify as Christian, according to the Pew Research Center. It’s refreshing to see a show tackle the puzzle of American Christian belief, and although “Living Biblically” is quite lightweight, the questions of worship in the first three episodes are recognizable —can I trust this ancient book, or how and when do you pray, or is my phone making me a worse person?
But in the same way that “Living Biblically’s” depiction of a film critic living in Brooklyn is hilariously inaccurate, the sitcom’s presentation of Chip’s religious life is a little too removed from reality, even for a multi-camera sitcom. Chip could do with a smidge more cynicism about the world, because his sudden devotional embrace of the full text of the Bible doesn’t make sense based on his background as either a Catholic or a film critic. Ferguson is an able lead, but the sitcom’s structure forces him to do way too much narrative exposition — about the Bible, about other characters, about the essential plot of the show. Rather than opening credits, the show has to rely on voiceover from Chip explaining what the show is about. And yet when Chip abandons or embraces certain elements of his journey, he doesn’t elaborate; by the second and third episodes, it seems that he’s accepted mixing fabrics, but no one tells the audience why — and meanwhile, Chip keeps following other detailed rules.
The strangest element of the whole endeavor is Chip’s “God Squad,” comprised of Father Gene (Ian Gomez) and Rabbi Gil (David Krumholtz). He regularly meets them for drinks to go over his non-crises. Krumholtz has been preparing to play a curmudgeonly rabbi ever since he was a young child, and he and Gomez have a nice rapport with each other. But they’re basically in a different show from Chip and Leslie, who are themselves in a different show from Chip’s workplace, a Manhattan publication headed by Ms. Meadows (Camryn Manheim). By the end of the third and strongest episode, “False Idols,” everyone meets everyone else, so maybe the show will improve as it coheres. But it’ll have to straighten out more of its premise before we figure out where this effortful setup is going.