Television

In Miracle Workers, the latest program about the afterlife, the crisis on Earth is taken to extremes with Steve Buscemi in charge of Heaven Inc.

By A. H. Cayley.

Miracle Workers’ heavenly charms

Geraldine Viswanathan and Daniel Radcliffe star as Eliza and Craig in Miracle Workers.
Credit: STAN

The first image of Miracle Workers is an enormous ice sheet crashing down into the ocean, narrated by a very American newsreader. The channel changes, and we’re told of a five-alarm forest fire causing mass devastation. Another channel change. A Florida man, that most beloved internet trope, has eaten a woman’s face off while high on synthetic drugs.

A dishevelled, tracksuited Steve Buscemi watches on, aghast. The scene ends with a pan up and out, revealing endless screens; a babble of voices and footage reporting on the myriad ways in which Earth is demonstrably rooted. Overwhelmed, he switches off the TVs and swigs from a bottle of beer. It is only 1pm. He is God, we soon learn, and he is horrified by what he has created.

Switching off, muting and looking away from disaster is a recurring theme in Miracle Workers, based on the book What In God’s Name by series creator and former Saturday Night Live writer Simon Rich.

Buscemi’s God is a listless slob who has lost all interest in his now-failing Earth project. He decides to trigger the apocalypse and move on to something more fun. His new project idea? A restaurant called Lazy Susan’s, which involves a lazy river in space, an island of chefs and floating customers equipped with reaching aids.

In order to save Earth from being blown up, two angels from the hopelessly understaffed Department of Answered Prayers, Craig (Daniel Radcliffe) and Eliza (Australia’s own Geraldine Viswanathan), have just two weeks to answer an “impossible” prayer – getting two hopelessly awkward humans to fall in love with one another.

Miracle Workers is the latest in a swath of TV shows concerned with fate and the afterlife. Netflix has The Good Place, Russian Doll, The Umbrella Academy and Black Mirror’s season three fan-favourite episode “San Junipero”. There is Amazon’s Forever; HBO’s The Leftovers; and, arguably, Twin Peaks: The Return. But this series, airing on Stan in Australia, zeros in on a particular trend of depicting heaven and fate as flawed bureaucracies, stretching the idea to its logical conclusion.

We see the Department of Animals pondering which species to send extinct in the face of new budget cuts, a red marker hovering over dogs. A PowerPoint presentation, which poorly assigns animal shapes to the constellations, goes uncorrected because it is being given by the nephew of heaven’s vice-president. Workers from the Department of Volcano Safety merely shrug in response to frantic sirens indicating magmatic disaster because they’re all on smoko.

Radcliffe’s Craig has worked alone in the dingy subterranean office of the Department of Answered Prayers for millennia, eschewing saving lives or curing diseases to instead help uncover lost keys and gloves. As he explains to Viswanathan’s Eliza, who has newly transferred from the Department of Dirt, the more serious prayers are sent “all the way to the top” – to God’s desk. “If anyone can handle them, He can.”

These crises are instead left to pile up on God’s desk, passing the point of no return, with no action ever taken. It certainly feels familiar.

At a time when the world is ending and it is definitely humanity’s fault, there is a genuine comfort to be found in comedy that suggests it really isn’t our fault. Climate change, famine, war, disasters – they are happening because a bunch of departments in the sky haven’t been hitting their KPIs or are even actively working against us, and nothing we do matters anyway. Free will is a heavy burden, accountability more so – what a relief it is to consider having neither, if only for the length of a TV show.

In its third season, Netflix comedy The Good Place revealed the bureaucracy of the afterlife is chugging along perfectly, despite the fact not a single human has reached heaven in 521 years. “The system is flawless, and tampering is quite impossible,” explains the weedy head accountant, Neil, played by a perfectly cast Stephen Merchant.

We soon learn that although the system may be flawless, the algorithm it is built upon is irredeemably flawed – an antique points system that sees even the most diligent do-gooder condemned for eternity because of the vast unintended consequences of every modern-day act. It should be terrifying but as a viewer in 2019 it’s honestly quite a relaxing notion – be the best person in the world, be the worst; it doesn’t make a difference. Go vegan and switch to a bamboo toothbrush, you will still feel deeply anxious every time you forget to say no to a plastic straw.

Similarly, The Umbrella Academy’s marvellous first season had a lot of fun with its literal agents of fate; a badass, otherworldly agency working to ensure just about every tragedy in human history goes ahead as planned – from the Kennedy assassination to the impending apocalypse. Even when it’s being blown up from the inside or facing the superhero efforts of the titular protagonists, this far higher power is nonetheless willing to pull out, maim and murder all the stops to guarantee the destruction of life on Earth. It’s quite a consolatory thought when you have accidentally left your KeepCup at home again.

Miracle Workers, in pitting Earth’s fate against its own alleged creator and salvation, grasps our grim situation and weaves it, masterfully, into absurdity. This creates some glorious moments, such as the Department of Genitals refusing to follow orders and explode anti-religion pundit Bill Maher’s penis (“... it would be immoral for us to destroy something so perfect”) or God giddily swiping right, Tinder-style, on a new prophet who later tells Him he just wants to be friends.

An excellent supporting cast makes the series worthwhile, with Karan Soni and Lolly Adefope expertly sighing and despairing as God’s long-suffering executive staff, while Jon Bass and Sasha Compère are sweetly relatable as Earth’s fated lovers. The best appearances are saved for episode six, in which Chris Parnell, Margaret Cho and Tituss Burgess cameo as God’s father, mother and brother, respectively. I’d gladly give up my place in heaven to see that spinoff. Perhaps, with any luck, the creators might consider a prequel series that goes deeper into that episode’s fantastic subplot about how Earth actually came to be.

While at times the satire is laid on too thick – Heaven Inc is a name even the Dead Kennedys would consider a little on the nose – Miracle Workers is a clever and charming work, carried well by the quirky star powers of Radcliffe and Buscemi, who replaced Owen Wilson, originally cast as God. Newcastle-born Viswanathan is genuinely captivating.

Where the series does fall down is in its brevity. There are just seven 20-minute episodes, not enough space for scenes to breathe, nor for an audience to fully invest in every storyline. The result is a narrative and emotional payoff that doesn’t quite hit the mark.

In the end, Miracle Workers’ full-speed-ahead pacing makes it feel like an ambitious project, a longer series that had to be slashed down to budget. It’s a shame for such a good show, one that would have made a far greater return off longer episodes, or a longer season, or both. But, perhaps it’s fitting. The Department of Animals had to kill off dogs, the greatest darlings of all.

Offscreen, in the actual world, real prayers are piling up on desks. Our crisis is nearing the point of no return, with sufficient action yet to be taken. The world is ending, and it is definitely, literally, all humanity’s fault.

If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.

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Melbourne Museum, until August 25

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Venues throughout Sydney, April 29-May 5

INSTALLATION Kaldor Public Art Project 34: Asad Raza, Absorption

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VISUAL ART Love & Desire: Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 27, 2019 as "Heaven help us". Subscribe here.

A. H. Cayley
is a writer and broadcaster.