‘Miracle Workers’ has a divine cast but needs intervention

Sunday, February 17, 2019 - 4:53pm

TBS

NOSELL

There’s an episode of “Mad Men” where Don Draper and his colleagues are tasked with writing a TV commercial for a brand of a diet soda. The clients make it easy — they’re looking for a frame-for-frame remake of Ann-Margret’s opening performance in “Bye Bye Birdie.” But when the agency delivers on that request, complete with a coquettish Ann-Margret look-alike, the soda reps recoil and reject the ad.

“I don’t think there’s any ambiguity about this being exactly — and I mean exactly — what you asked for,” Don says in disbelief. Yes, it is what they asked for, the clients concede, but something about it isn’t right. It’s Don’s boss Roger who finally identifies the problem: “It’s not Ann-Margret.”

I wanted so badly to like “Miracle Workers,” TBS’s new limited-series comedy about the inner workings of Heaven. It promised to be a high-concept “The Office” meets “The Good Place.” It stars Steve Buscemi (“Boardwalk Empire”) as a slovenly, addled God, an off-kilter Daniel Radcliffe (“Harry Potter”) and the wonderful “Blockers” breakout Geraldine Viswanathan. This is exactly — and I mean exactly — what I asked for.

Still, it’s not Ann-Margret. Despite everything it has going for it, “Miracle Workers” is not nearly as good as it should be. And it isn’t immediately clear why that’s true. It’s some combination of half-baked humor, murky exposition, contrived stakes and the fact that the eschatological absurdism genre has been done before to much better success. “The Good Place” comparisons are probably unfair, but they can’t be helped.

Eliza (Viswanathan), a young, dutiful employee of Heaven, Inc., is granted a reassignment from the Department of Dirt to the understaffed Department of Answered Prayers, where the manic, lonely Craig (Radcliffe) deals with the billions of prayers sent upstairs from Earth. Given the metaphysical limitations of Heaven’s prayer-granting abilities (employees can only alter the world through “discrete natural phenomena”), the three or four prayers Craig chooses to answer each day are low-stakes —  like finding lost gloves and car keys. The rest of the prayers are stamped “Impossible” and vaulted up to God (Buscemi), who has absolutely no interest in handling any of them.

Buscemi’s God is juvenile, moody and makes everyone around him miserable. He longs for the days when people on Earth sacrificed rams in his honor and laments that the world is now too complex, too broken for him to handle. It’s a bit of a shift from “The Good Place,” where the immortal universe operates like clockwork, with bright pastels and breezy sound effects. Sufficiently disgruntled, God decides to absolve himself of his responsibilities by blowing up Earth, a plan he’ll execute in two weeks … until Eliza steps in.

Eliza is the real heart of “Miracle Workers,” and it seems like she’s the best chance the show has to stay compelling and worth investing in moving forward. Viswanathan is surrounded by exceptionally talented actors — Buscemi’s bit can get old fast but he’s still a joy to watch, Radcliffe boasts an impressive range and the kooky side characters who color in the rest of the world are all plenty endearing. It’s in rough shape now, but it won’t take any miracles to save this show — only some faith that this cast can turn it into something more worthwhile.