Seen Miracle Workers yet? This bleakly funny existential comedy series about the end of the world beautifully balances light and dark elements, writes Joan Westenberg.
It’s 2019. The planet is in absolute crisis. Systems are failing. Everything is falling apart. Thousands are dying. And God is in his penthouse apartment, wearing sweatpants, drinking beer and dreaming up niche new fast food restaurants. Or at least, that’s the premise of Miracle Workers, a bleakly funny existential comedy about the end of the world.
The Stan exclusive is set in a version of heaven that is little more than an out of date and struggling corporation with ageing technology and a disinterested executive. Everything feels dysfunctional, pointless and a little obsolete in a way that recalls the mind numbing decay of The IT Crowd‘s Reynholm Industries. While his staff are increasingly disengaged and uninterested in the plight of the planet, God (played by an outstanding Steve Buscemi) is cynical and depressed, and has become completely bored of his creation. Bored enough that he’s decided to blow up the earth.
In his slothful depression, he’s challenged by Eliza (Geraldine Viswanathan), a go-getter who challenges him to a bet. If she can make one major, important miracle happen, he’ll spare the earth.
Viswanathan is a talented newcomer with a handful of excellent credits, and she plays well alongside an increasingly indie and odd Daniel Radcliffe, in his lead role as a hyper-focused Angel. Radcliffe is nervous, anxious, constantly distracted and stressed, and completely believable.
His Angel is a grinder, who has dedicated hundreds of years of his life to making tiny, mundane miracles come true. He celebrates the hours it takes him to erase enough snowflakes that a woman can find her car keys. It’s a damn good joke, until you think about the beauty of the tiny, human moments that he facilitates.
Radcliffe’s choices as an actor are challenging, fascinating and unique. Who can forget Swiss Army Man, after all. In Miracle Workers, there’s something charming in his ability to show innocence and dedication to his work in a hugely cynical and failing corporation.
God is the butt of the joke throughout Miracle Workers. Buscemi manages to make the character frustratingly relatable, completely believable and just pathetic enough to be likeable. His recurring jokes about gambling, his reliance on his parents and his long string of failures turn him into a character straight out of a 90’s slacker comedy.
Miracle Workersis dark and funny, but there’s nothing funny about the world it portrays. In the snippets you see in the first few episodes, you’re shown the world as it actually is outside our windows. Catastrophic climate events, mass shootings, violence and pain are clearly apparent, and clearly the fault of the deity who just wants to drink and play with a Lazy Susan.
But the darkness isn’t all pervading, and the innocence of some of the jokes carries it through with a lightness of touch that keeps it funny Somehow. The pilot carries a lot more black humour than the subsequent episodes, so if it’s a little too much at first, it’s worth struggling through.
The show’s concept isn’t anything earth shattering. But there’s a unique pathos to the way it treats both the humans and the doomed planet they inhabit. It’s not that humans are necessarily evil, or beyond redemption. It’s that they aren’t being given a chance, and God is a total slacker who doesn’t give a damn. There’s no heavy-handed judgement – the comedy is in the predicament.
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Miracle Workers feels very 2019. It’s the kind of show that could only exist in the same world as Twitter’s snark and bite, political chaos, and that slowly permeating sense of existential dread and environmental/social despair that so many of us are learning to live with. Where it touches on that despair, it handles it sensitively, while still finding a way to explore humour in situations and attempts to lighten the mood.
While it’s hard to crack any believable jokes at the state of the planet and the human race, it’s still worth doing. At least when you can punch up rather than down, and find a way to tell a story that involves decent humans, a touch of the emotive, and enough hope to keep people watching, no matter how bleak it can occasionally feel. At some point, TV writing has to begin exploring the realism of a darker world, with a little less positivity, where even small human stories about couples finding love must be touched by the bigger picture of decline. When Miracle Workers can pull those threads together, it shines.
It’s worth a watch, and if you’re a fan of smart comedies like The Good Place or Parks and Recreation that don’t use tired jokes for a cheap laugh, you’ll be into it. As God would say: “I’ll bet you a hundy.”
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