As the real world around the entertainment industry is becoming increasingly dark, the number of shows that deal with faith and spirituality is bordering on the miraculous.
For many writers and producers, this is an opportunity to offer an antidote to the stress of daily life and try to infuse their audience with a sense of hope and optimism. For others, such stories actually provide deeper ways to explore culture, comment on the state of humanity and ask audiences to hold themselves accountable for their actions.
“We found ourselves in this situation in the last couple years, in our country and around the world, where we felt we needed a show like ours,” says “God Friended Me” co-creator Bryan Wynbrandt. “We wanted to find something that spoke to everybody and hit that middle where we’re trying to have a conversation [and] we’re trying to see each other’s sides.”
The CBS drama he created with Steven Lilien centers on an atheist whose views are challenged after receiving a social-media friend request from someone claiming to be God. That character (played by Brandon Micheal Hall) then finds himself thrust into situations in which he makes unexplained connections.
Having an atheist on-screen is “one of the last taboos in American culture,” Lilien says.
When atheists have been portrayed in the past, they are often shown as being “without hope,” he continues, but the duo wanted to demonstrate that not believing in organized religion and not having faith in humanity are “not mutually exclusive.”
“Our culture is about the self and presenting oneself, so there is this philosophically really juicy correlation between our love of social media and disdain for it, and our love and disdain for organized religion, because it’s all about us projecting self into a spiritual version of ourselves,” Lilien says.
Still, the “true north” of the show, according to Wynbrandt, is “celebrating our differences and really the belief in each other more so than any deity or religion.”
Similar to “God Friended Me,” Ramy Youssef’s self-titled, semi-autobiographical Hulu comedy “Ramy” approaches religion and faith from a grounded, earnest standpoint of what it means to be a modern Muslim. This includes reframing “what a mosque is” and what it means when somebody says “Allahu Akbar,” points out the show’s creator and star.
“There are so few shows that touch on our faith without the umbrella of terrorism,” Youssef says. “My faith is very important to me and I took that risk of saying, ‘OK, I’m gonna do something that I haven’t really seen,’ which is someone who believes in the faith, but also gets dirty and gets messy. I’m very happy to do that for the Muslim community because I think it will open up a lot of conversations that need to be had.”
Of the utmost importance to Youssef was to offer the television landscape a look at a character who isn’t questioning his faith but rather “questioning his actions.”
“It was about looking introspectively at how being a Muslim is a big part of my life and representing my faith on screen,” he says. “You have what you believe and what you actually do, and there’s the in-between. I’m wrestling with my desire, these ideas that are contradictory to what I believe, but I’m not wrestling with my faith; I’m not picking apart the belief. It’s actually just watching somebody try to be their higher self.”
However, it can be a tricky tonal balance to tell stories about a character’s faith without the audience feeling like they are being preached a certain religion or way of life.
For Simon Rich, who authored the 2012 novel “What in God’s Name?” that he then adapted for TBS’s comedic limited series “Miracle Workers,” the cynicism of the real world became an integral part of his imagined version of heaven: a clunky, bureaucratic corporation, where angels are often incompetent and insecure, just as humans are.
“There’s a famous quote from Genesis which says, ‘Man was created in God’s image,’ and so working backwards from that, if we’re a lot like God, then God would be a lot like us, which is to say deeply flawed in the same manner that we are,” Rich says. “That always struck me as a really funny conceit, that the person in charge would be just as bad at his job as we are.”
Additionally, Rich found it important not to root his version of God (played by Steve Buscemi) — who decides to blow up Earth — explicitly in a Judeo-Christian incarnation of a deity, although he admits he was “largely inspired by the Bible” when coming up with the character.
“The main thing I got from reading the Bible was that God is an extremely dramatic character,” Rich says. “His capacity for violence is so extreme, the notion that he could wipe out a civilization whenever he chose was an amazing character trait, and I thought it lent itself to some high-stakes storytelling.”
“Miracle Workers” asks the question why bad things happen to good people and provides the answer, “by accident,” says Rich. However, another show that deals with life and death and has a far more rational, mathematical solution is “The Good Place.”
When Mike Schur created “The Good Place” in 2016, he set out from minute one to ensure his viewers realized that he, too, wasn’t targeting any one religion in particular with his brand of biting satire.
“Very early in the pilot, when Ted Danson tells Kristen Bell she’s in the afterlife, her first thought is, ‘Who’s right?’ He tells her that every major religion got a little bit right — every religion got it 5% right — and I did that very deliberately because I wanted to send the message that this is not a show that takes up any one major or minor religious view about heaven or hell. It’s about human behavior and not about human belief,” Schur says.
“The Good Place” imagines that throughout a human’s life, a flawless algorithm is adding up all the good and bad things they do, and their final score determines whether they end up in the bad place, where evil demons torture people, or the good place, which is supposed to be perfect. But as the world has gotten more complex, even simple actions with the best intentions have ripple effects that can — and have — skewed that equation, resulting in no humans making it into the actual titular haven in centuries.
“I wanted it to be non-religious,” Schur says. “I wanted it to be everything you do — not just taking the Lord’s name in vain, but throwing a gum wrapper at a garbage can and missing — I want all of those things to matter. [It’s] the idea that everything you do every day has some effect on the world around you and some moral worth.”