Monday, June 27, 2022

God’s Favorite Idiot isn’t a good place, but it tackles the belief convincingly

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WStrange times when you have to pray for the angels,” Amily tells her boyfriend Clark as they drive away from the apocalypse in a new Netflix comedy God’s favorite idiot. She is literal. Clark, played by Ben Falcone, is a middle-aged IT worker and prophet. Amily, played by Falcone’s real-life wife Melissa McCarthy, was little more to him than an eccentric, pill-busting co-worker until he began to—literally again—glow at his desk.

Created by Falcone, the eight-episode series is primarily set in Clark’s nondescript office – a tangle of cubicles full of wacky American colleagues who never seem to produce anything tangible. His boss, Frisbee (Steve Mallory, co-writer of the 2016 comedy The boss starring Falcone and McCarthy), turns out to be one of God’s lesser angels hidden in the body of a middle-management henchman. Here’s a workplace sitcom with the ambitions of The good place or the Jim Carrey flick from 2003 Bruce Almighty, both religious comedies that question what it means to be godly good. However, God’s favorite idiot asks an ultimately less useful question: whether anyone was a messenger of God, how would all others receive him?

The rosy answer, at least around the break room, is wholeheartedly. Almost as soon as Clark’s vaguely defined powers surface – he can shine, speak in tongues, quote scriptures, see archangels on earth – his peers flock to his side. They voluntarily form a “Council for Clark” and never ask for even a cheeky little heavenly favor in return.

It’s the outside world that feels more predictably mixed. Clark’s father, initially concerned that a blasphemous prank is afoot, quickly comes to his senses. Satan – played by a uber-playful Leslie Bibb – isn’t a fan, but in general Clark attracts a grab bag of zealots, haters and voyeurs. One day, cable news vans park in front of his house and never leave. In a sweetly modern attempt to win over nonbelievers, Clark even directs a dance video for TikTok.

The catch is that the show’s extravagant and often very funny set-up never reaches the allegorical heights of such a clever series The good place, in which Kristen Bell’s dirtbag character spent several seasons fighting her way to heaven through personal improvement. Sitcoms don’t have to be morally instructive, but raise the big questions – Which religion is right? Is there a life after death? – the audience expects a payout.

However, sometimes the whole religious act can seem more like a trick. It’s a way of getting a comedian as talented as Melissa McCarthy to say the words “holy guacamole” and — last time, I promise — mean them literally. We learn that the universe is like a giant baklava, where battles for heaven and earth take place simultaneously on different planes, each of which is beholden to the demands of paperwork in order to get something done. Holy bureaucracy! God (Australian actress Magda Szubanski) chooses Clark as his vessel because he is “sweet and easy as pecan pie”. But the only moral implication I could tease out is that we should be nice to sweet, simple people because maybe they’re more important on another level of the fluffy filo of human existence.

The lessons that emerge seem to apply only to the Nebbish Clark, who as a prophet is emboldened to ask Amily about years of longing. Finally, he also takes a stand against his mother, who abandoned him as a child but delivers the show’s most subversive one-liner: “No one ever talks about how difficult it is for the mother to leave.” It’s inspirational, sure, but when Takeaway from a series about the world’s most thorny theological what-if questions, a little forgotten.

Still, you don’t feel that disappointment until you reach the end. How you see it is the most encouraging part God’s favorite idiot is that it’s primarily an outward-facing sitcom. Given the religiosity of television audiences, particularly in America, it’s still rare for sitcoms — television’s most enduring form — to explore issues of faith. And in a moment when comedy too often grabs headlines for embracing an offensive third rail (take the controversial work of Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais), it’s refreshing to see a show push boundaries that it’s pushing exceed those that are actually worth exceeding.

“God’s Favorite Idiot” is now streaming on Netflix

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