In the mid to late 2010s, basic cable network TBS took a small but creatively interesting turn to producing original scripted comedies, and launched a number of shows that were smart and/or goofy, big and/or nuanced, and often a little bit mean. These included “Angie Tribeca” in the “Naked Gun” style, “Wrecked” in the “Lost” style, and “The Detour” (maybe my favorite family comedy ever, by Jason Jones and Samantha Bee, their late late night show was also on the network), the first season of “Search Party” and the alien abduction-themed ensemble piece “People of Earth”, with headliner Wyatt Cenac doing a particularly good job. All of these shows are worth searching for, even if they’re not necessarily easy to find.
The last remaining TBS comedy is the delightful series Miracle Workers, whose fourth and final season premieres Monday, potentially bringing an end not only to the series but also to the network’s interest in original script programming. That the subtitle is “End Times” feels significant.
Created by Simon Rich (Man Seeking Woman, An American Pickle), Miracle Workers tells a different, independent story each time, while retaining its main cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Steve Buscemi, Geraldine Viswanathan, and Jon Bass Karan Soni. The first season, set largely in heaven, was based on Rich’s 2012 novel What in God’s Name? and introduced Buscemi as an exhausted deity and Radcliffe and Viswanathan as lesser angels in the department of (mostly unanswered) prayers.
The second, from Rich’s short story Revolution, was subtitled Dark Ages and is set in a fictional medieval kingdom, with Radcliffe as the chest prince, Viswanathan as an overly ambitious woman for her time, and Buscemi as her father, a shovel of excrement ( an occupation reflected in his unprintable surname). The Oregon Trail followed, with Radcliffe as an uptight preacher, Viswanathan as another character bored with societal constraints, and Buscemi as a fugitive outlaw leading his wagon train west.
The new season is set in a Mad Max-style post-apocalypse desert setting, with Radcliffe and Viswanathan as two street fighters migrating from the wastelands to the so-called “suburbs.”
The repertory approach gives the series a kind of growing weight over time. (Which isn’t to say it’s a weighty show.) While the characters and their stories differ from year to year, there are some similarities, and the actors lend each their personality and physical appearance. Radcliffe’s characters are, on the whole, more timid, contradictory, insecure, and unformed; Viswanathan are smarter, more impulsive, more adventurous and unconventional, and they crave something more. Buscemi plays variations on fathers, father figures, or authority figures who perhaps shouldn’t have authority. Soni’s characters are a little dark, a little cynical and not without power, while Bass’s are more dark and (mostly) cute. It’s not necessary to start at the beginning to see the final season, but it’s worth it for the cumulative effect. (All seasons stream on Max and each has its rewards.)
While the characters of Radcliffe and Viswanathan took a slow path to romance in previous seasons, “End Times” wastes no time as if aware of its own finality. Within the first three minutes of the opening episode, Sid (Radcliffe), a lone wanderer in the wasteland, and Freya (Viswanathan), a fearsome warlord, meet Cute in the desert – she beats him, he stabs her – and get married. Immediately we see them at the gates of Boomtown – as in “the Booms” that destroyed the world – a relatively civilized junkyard town. Living there, Freya says, will give them the opportunity to “live a life together.” I was with my warlord the whole time, and you wanted to get out of that tight boulder you were hiding under.” She also thinks she’ll take over the house, but hasn’t bothered with the power of the HOA – the Homeowners Association – expected.
Bass plays Scraps, the couple’s combination secretary and pet (he often acts, thinks and acts like a dog, and that’s kind of disturbing), while Soni is Freya’s best friend, a Terminator-esque android with a cheeky attitude that it troubles to find him Freya is content with a comfortable domesticity. “They’re like robots,” he says of the people of Boomtown, “and I can say that because I’m a robot.”
Sid works for Buscemi’s Morris Rubinstein, a garbage man (“a literal garbage man”) who lives in the remains of a fast with his holographic wife (Erin Darke), a beaded ’50s TV housewife who exists only to serve lives food restaurant. “It’s an authentic McMansion from the 2020s,” says Morris proudly. “We kept the original laminate floors, the chairs that only swivel halfway, and after dinner we can retire to the ball pit.”
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The humor in each season can be dark, violent, and gruesome, but the premise and genre make “End Times” particularly loud. One might surmise that Boomtown’s civilizing influence would make up the arc of the season. (Only three episodes were made available for review.) On the other hand, given the cinematic model, it would be just as likely that we’re headed for some sort of battle royale – within budget, of course.
The funniest part of the show, though, is the quieter moments: Freya in bed reading a box of toothpaste “for Book Club” (“Had a great start when the toothpaste was minty, but now I’m in that boring part, the four out of five dentists recommend it”) or Buscemi, who amounts to a one-man show and attends a high school reunion populated entirely by skeletons. (He still manages to get beat up by what’s left of his old bully.)
By combining historical or paranormal themes with contemporary and common behaviors and concerns – its banalization of the extraordinary – and its application of broad witticisms to genres most often taken seriously, Miracle Workers belongs to a cherished tradition that includes the Monty Python’s credits include Holy Grail and Life of Brian, Carry On, Cleo, numerous Mel Brooks projects, the animated films Disenchantment and Futurama, and the pirate comedy Our Flag Means Death. (Radcliffe’s lecture sometimes reminds me of Rhys Darby.)
Satire may be too strong a word for what is written here, but human folly is pointed out, personally, socially and politically. At the same time, it’s easy to delve into the characters and their stories. We’re always clear about who they are and what they mean to each other. Jokes and conceits can drown out the plot in this sort of comedy, but for all its weirdness, Miracle Workers remains dimensional, relatable, and oddly endearing.