'Living Biblically': TV Review

Fails to follow the sitcom commandment, 'Thou shall make us laugh.'
2/26/2018

CBS' new show is more a mediocre sitcom about a man trying to recover his faith than a quirky and specific adaptation of A.J. Jacobs' book about trying to live according to the Bible.

The first and second most important things to know about Living Biblically are that the new comedy isn't particularly good, but it also isn't at all offensive to people of faith.

The third most important thing to know is that Living Biblically isn't really the show CBS is promoting it as, and the audience being promoted to probably won't like it at all, while the audience that might like it — and such an audience really does exist — probably won't be swayed by the promotion.

Adapted from A.J. Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically by Patrick Walsh, the series focuses on Chip (Jay R. Ferguson), a film critic who responds to his wife's (Lindsey Kraft) pregnancy and the recent death of a childhood friend by deciding to live his life 100 percent according to the Bible for one year. He describes it as a spiritual master cleanse and explains, "For the most part, I'm a good man, but I want to be great."

His wife, a medical professional and thinly sketched woman-of-science, is skeptical, as are his colleagues (played by Tony Rock, occasionally Sara Gilbert and, as their loud new boss, Camryn Manheim) and his newly formed God Squad, which includes the amiable Father Gene (Ian Gomez) and the snarky Rabbi Ableman (David Krumholtz) — though it's unfair that the "living according to the Bible" thing seems more implausible to them than the "New York newspaper film critic who regularly goes into an office in a blazer and tie" thing.

In the pilot, Chip encounters some difficulties with the specificity of the Bible, such as the edict to stone adulterers.

Of the whole endeavor, Chip's colleague observes, "I thought you were about due for another one of your obsessions."

That's the show CBS is promoting Living Biblically as, and it's a Trojan Horse.

The hook of the book, as with several of Jacobs' books, is the extent of the author's obsessions. The Know-It-All isn't about Jacobs trying to learn new things, it's about him trying to read a full encyclopedia. The Year of Living Biblically is about him following the specific arcana of the Bible. That's not what the TV show is at all, even if the hints of it, including the aforementioned stoning joke, offer perhaps the only real laughs in the pilot.

The TV show is just about a guy who has to face fatherhood at the same time that he loses a friend and begins to doubts his place in the world and turns to religion for solace and guidance without necessarily knowing how to be religious. I say "just" as if that's not a perfectly reasonably premise for a TV show or movie or book, but in 2018, you couldn't get a TV network to buy a sitcom about a guy embracing Catholicism and trying to find a personal relationship with God, unless God were literally and physically present and prone to sarcastic one-liners.

CBS made two post-pilot episodes available to critics, and neither reflects the Biblical obsession flirted with in the pilot. One episode finds Chip experimenting with the idea of prayer as both a magical solution to problems and then realizing its spiritual significance, basically the "Pray Anything" episode of The Simpsons. The other relates to Chip deciding his phone is an idol that he worships and learning a lesson about living in the moment, not behind a second screen. Forget the entire Bible, Chip is barely trying to live by the 10 Commandments. There's no exploration of the specific ways these things are treated in the Bible or how different religions following the same Bible approach the text.

It's the difference between the show being, "Ha, isn't it funny how being religious is complicated, but still worth it, in modern life?," which is an earnest theme welcoming believers into the audience, and "Isn't the Bible a ridiculous and ancient text full of valuable meaning, but also wacky details that are completely incompatible with modern life that we want to laugh at?," which can also be an earnest theme, but would probably alienate those believers.

Because Living Biblically is a CBS show, it's trying to be a big tent comedy and the jokes in the three episodes I've seen are calculated not to offend at least as much, and probably more, than they're calculated to amuse. Chip is presented as broadly and respectfully eager to learn, and the perplexed characters like his wife are allowed to express their confusion with dialogue like, "Are we still gonna have fun? I'm not throwing out my rap albums. You know how much I love my filthy, filthy sex rap."

The show isn't really about theological debate, even funny theological debate, so there's no point in wondering how Chip's "100 percent literally approach to the Bible" is going to be impacted if he somehow meets somebody who happens to be gay or a woman who's menstruating or any of the countless possibilities that would require more than the setup-punchline the audience is expecting. The show avoids the complications of its premise aggressively.

Krumholtz in a yarmulke will always impart a certain amount of Jewishness, but his character only has a real purpose if Chip is in the midst of a general theological inquiry. He's not. Chip wants to be Catholic, and so Krumholtz's Rabbi Ableman brings no Jewish component. Instead of quoting the Talmud, he quotes Thomas Aquinas. Instead of using midrash to make a point, he invokes Friends.

Yet Krumholtz's sarcasm is still occasionally funny, just as Gomez's more childlike enthusiasm is occasionally funny. If Living Biblically were a show that didn't rely so heavily on easy and dated punchlines — the script feels like it was written in 1965, then polished in 1995 with a Seinfeld joke and polished again last year with a Beyonce joke — they could still be a key component. Ferguson, who comes to Living Biblically off of The Real O'Neals (a better show that pissed off some religious groups by daring to feature characters who wanted to be devout even if their lives sometimes came into conflict with Catholic dogma), has a character written as excessively clueless on his new adventure, but still does wide-eyed enthusiasm well. Kraft's Leslie is definitely yet another arms-crossed CBS wife disapproving of her manchild husband, albeit one with more justification than most and with a withering tone that I appreciated. None of the three episodes has even a remotely amusing B-story, and Chip's workplace and his colleagues there barely register at all.

So it's best to know what Living Biblically is and what it isn't. It isn't really much like the Jacobs book it's allegedly based on, so don't go looking for Jacobs' quirky and obsessive look at religion and the Bible. It is, however, a mediocre-yet-well-meaning look at how religion, specifically Catholicism, can sometimes help people in times of trouble. It's less specific and pointed and more generic and well-meaning. It's not anywhere near clever enough to be a show for me (or probably a show intended for critics in any way), but the thing it's trying for isn't being done by any other show on broadcast TV — not an unworthy aspiration.

Cast: Jay R. Ferguson, Lindsey Kraft, Ian Gomez, David Krumholtz, Tony Rock, Camryn Manheim
Creator: Patrick Walsh from the book by A.J. Jacobs
Premieres: Monday, 9:30 p.m. ET/PT (CBS)