What if Earth were just an accident, created by someone who never had any idea what the hell they were doing?
So goes the wild, existentially startling premise for “Miracle Workers,” TBS’ new limited comedy series based on Simon Rich’s book “What in God’s Name.” The show is sharp, absurd and empathetic when you least expect it (a combination that will surprise no one who tuned in to Rich’s delightfully weird FX comedy “Man Seeking Woman”). It casts Steve Buscemi — also acting as executive producer — in the role of a dimwitted slacker God. The combination of his strange ideas, lofty ambitions and utter lack of finesse resulted in Earth, which became the laughingstock of the entire galaxy. (Worse were the eight other useless planets he tried first, with frozen rock Pluto a particular object of bemused disdain.)
So while this God may technically be almighty, he nonetheless spends his days padding around his cavernous apartment, frittering away his forever while warehouses of Heaven employees do the granular work of keeping his defective creation operational. In a slyly pointed piece of satire, the God of “Miracle Workers” is basically a delinquent billionaire who puts his vast company on autopilot, only occasionally stepping in to throw a tantrum that makes things more difficult for those who are actually trying to get things done.
It’s a role that perfectly hews to Buscemi’s specific comedy strengths. His version of God is strange and off-putting but also painfully earnest, often revealing a surprise, naive sweetness that keeps him from becoming too flat a caricature. But for as fun as Buscemi is, what makes “Miracle Workers” so good is that it isn’t really about God or the moral implications of there being a Heaven — as is the case on NBC’s “The Good Place,” an inevitable comparison. Instead, the show largely centers on a core group of Heaven’s workers, who are sometimes called “angels” but are more accurately just flawed people who were randomly assigned to Heaven Inc. after death and are now trying to make something of their monotonous afterlives.
When corporate cog Eliza (Geraldine Viswanathan) gets more bored than normal, she stumbles into a high-stakes bet with her fed-up employer. If she can’t make two awkward humans (Sasha Compere and Jon Bass) fall in love, Earth will explode. Desperate, she enlists the help of Craig (Daniel Radcliffe), a shy workhorse who’s been manning the Prayers department by himself for years, rarely daring to get more ambitious than guide a gust of wind to help someone find their keys.
As the show’s anchors, Viswanathan (a standout in last year’s teen sex comedy “Blockers”) and Radcliffe (an executive producer who plainly relishes the chance to try some bizarre comedy on for size) play wonderfully off each other. Viswanathan’s blunt delivery balances Radcliffe’s stuttering in such a way that neither becomes too overwhelming. They also manage to ground a complex premise in something approaching reality.
Eventually, to save the planet, they have to call for backup in the form of Sanjay (Karan Soni) and Rosie (Lolly Adefope), God’s personal assistants, whose considerable talents have been wasted on tending to his every ridiculous whim. With this unlikely team, “Miracle Workers” becomes a surprising and very funny workplace comedy — complete with coffee runs and co-worker crushes — that happens to take place in Heaven.
Whether it’s focusing on God, his dysfunctional angels or his oblivious human creations, the series tackles the universal plight of what it means to seek connection in a world whose only constant is chaos. It loves a silly joke (keep your eyes peeled for background gags), but that perspective keeps the show from collapsing. Ultimately, the small miracle of “Miracle Workers” is that it launches past any obvious gimmicks to favor incisive punchlines that find humor and warmth in the most unusual — and undeniably fascinating — places.
Comedy, 30 mins. Premieres Tuesday February 12 at 10:30 pm on TBS.
Crew: Executive producers: Simon Rich, Daniel Radcliffe, Steve Buscemi, Lorne Michaels, Andrew Singer.