'God Friended Me': TV Review

On this show, God works in contrived, clumsy and conventional ways.
9/30/2018

CBS' latest bid for a faith-based audience has a muddled sense of social media and religion but, in Brandan Micheal Hall and Violett Beane, it may have some OK stars.

Readings associated with the Jewish high holidays offer a helpful reminder that long before Joan of Arcadia and Wonderfalls and The Book of Daniel, God was a figure whose tendency toward elusive messaging was well-established. Sure, God very literally lists a wide assortment of rules and prohibitions and delivers unambiguous messages from bushes and mountaintops, but God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a test of faith and God makes Jonah fulminate in the belly of a leviathan to prove a point. God, as the story goes, works in mysterious ways.

That is to say that God taking to social media to recruit prophets and turning altruism into a New York City scavenger hunt isn't an inherently incorrect interpretation of Her complicated processes. CBS' new dramedy God Friended Me just happens to be poorly executed and a true test of at least one of my most deeply held spiritual beliefs, namely that nothing with Joe Morton can be all bad.

God Friended Me, created by Steven Lilien and Bryan Wynbrandt, stars extremely likable The Mayor lead Brandon Micheal Hall as Miles, an atheist podcaster whose life gets turned upside down when he gets a friend request on Facebook from God. Now let's leave aside that there are roughly a thousand Twitter accounts "claiming" to be God or God adjacent and that the entire point of social media is the construction of a carefully curated personal universe in which we're all effectively playing God. No, the God who attempts to friend Miles seems to have the ability to hijack all of Miles' appliances and, once Miles accepts God, the ability to recommend people in need. This pushes Miles first toward a depressed man on the verge of suicide and then to Cara (Violett Beane), an online journalist at a click-farm website with a prominent "What's Trending?" board that she's rarely on anymore. With the help of Miles' best buddy Rakesh (Suraj Sharma), a gifted hacker because of course he is, they follow the digital breadcrumbs to try to get to the proprietor and purpose of the God account.

It might be silly to make deus ex machina criticisms regarding a show that's literally about a deus ex social media, and yet the construction of the pilot is simply an ungodly mess. It's an assortment of reactive characters responding to an unseen force with no clear differentiation between fate and coincidence and no real respect for the dramatic ebb and flow of a broadcast television episode. Yes, we could call that "normal life," but it's bad drama, especially since God Friended Me is aiming for the elegant loop of a short story, connecting all the pieces, only to come across as a decidedly artless mixture of false climaxes and plot-stopping emotional beats delivered with thudding obviousness. There were at least three different points in the pilot in which my notes read, "Wait, shouldn't that be the end of this story?" only to be followed by "Oh, that was stupid." Every beat is so rushed that the pilot feels like a series finale in which all the stories have to be tied up neatly and it reaches an end that doesn't set up a series at all.

The problems that kept jarring me out of the show's world are almost all things that should have been smoothed out in the development process before ever making it to pilot and forcing director Marcos Siega to deal with executing the unexecutable. Siega makes the pilot brightly lit and pretty and sprinkles in overbearing musical choices and generally can't fix that little in the pilot that's supposed to make you laugh is really funny and I snort-laughed at least one place that needed to be serious.

If there were no precedent for how to do a show like God Friended Me, I might confuse what's wrong here for the challenge of the unique, but God Friend Me is basically doing the same thing that every "reluctant prophet in a modern world" show has attempted, which is testing the faith of a skeptical protagonist through a regular series of trials designed to help people in need at the same time as they help themselves. This isn't just not new, it's Biblical. More recently, you can look to those shows mentioned in my lede, or to Kevin (Probably) Saved the World as recently as last season. Now, Kevin (Probably) Saved the World wasn't perfect or, initially, all that good. It struggled with tone and by the time it settled into a pleasant routine, nobody was watching and it was canceled. It was still better than this. God Friended Me does very little to adapt the formula to how regular people use social media or religion in the modern world.

Thus far, only the pilot for God Friended Me has been made available to critics, and it's made watchable mostly by the cast. Hall remains an actor who, once he gets the right project, has star potential, and The Flash veteran Beane is given enough characterization to be an OK sidekick, except the show thinks she's a co-lead. The promising Sharma made me chuckle with his reading of a too-obvious joke line ("I found God. He's in Jersey!") and kept me from cringing through the more stereotypical introduction to his character. And Morton, playing the main character's father, a reverend introduced giving a sermon about God testing us, is good enough in his one scene to make me hope that he just joins the main characters' God Squad.

I hope that happens pretty soon, like by the second episode, because there's nothing at all in the pilot for God Friended Me that makes me interested in watching anything more than another courtesy hour.

Cast: Brandon Micheal Hall, Violett Beane, Suraj Sharma, Javicia Leslie, Joe Morton
Creator: God
Series creators: Steven Lilien and Bryan Wynbrandt
Premieres: Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET/PT (CBS)