‘God Friended Me’ Review: God Bless This Mess

     September 28, 2018

god-friended-me-sliceSince the dawn of time, human beings have been striving to answer three major questions: Does God exist? Why are we here? Who could this new CBS show possibly be for? Attempting to answer all three questions at once is God Friended Me, a new drama from creators Steven Lilien and Bryan Wynbrandt genetically engineered in the laboratory that used to be Les Moonves‘ office to be the perfect CBS show. It’s heavy on the hamminess, rooted in religion and old-fashioned morality, and misunderstands the lifestyle of your average human under the age of 35 on every fundamental level. Friends, it is fascinating, a melodramatic misfire in practically every sense of the word that I also cannot in good faith tell you not to watch. The premiere episode of God Friended Me is a bit like having a religious experience in itself; those who experience it will understand, those who skip it will not believe the sights you have beheld.

Our protagonist is Miles Finer (Brandon Micheal Hall), an atheist who hosts a podcast called Millennial Prophet, in which he argues against God’s existence. That’s the podcast. From the little we see of the recording process, each episode appears to consist of a guest presenting their case, followed by Miles leaning forward in his chair and saying, “Actually, no.” Miles’ father is a reverend (Joe Morton), who you can imagine isn’t thrilled about having a son who devotes several hours of the day to telling people their faith is both wrong and dumb.

On the same day Sirius Radio inexplicably expresses interest in Millennial Prophet, Miles receives a Facebook friend request from “God”. (Profile photo: A cloud.) The God account recommends Miles become friends with a man named John Dove (Christopher Redman), who Miles promptly stops from committing suicide on a subway platform. Before Miles can comprehend the fact he might be exchanging pokes with a literal deity, the God account recommends another name: internet journalist Cara Bloom (Violett Beane).

I’ve seen The Last Crusade, I know that to believe in God is to take drastic leaps of faith, but here are some absurd facts that God Friended Me asks us to accept about Cara Bloom: Cara Bloom works for a website that actively—some would say religously—tracks the pageviews and virality of its stories and yet Cara Bloom has not written a story in six weeks. Cara somehow not only still has a job but occupies an entire corner office that contains, for some reason, roughly five ottomans. That is not how online media works. If you don’t craft a Tweet every six seconds a Buzzfeed representative comes to your house and throws a brick through your window. Those are the rules.

Here are a few more absurdities that God Friended Me would like you to accept: Cara agrees to help Miles track down the God account—”I’m a journalist, I know how to find people” she says—in exchange for the story. She pitches it as “a think-piece about the intersection between faith and science through the prism of social media” and is immediately fired. I’m kidding, her editor loves this idea that not a single person in the site’s target audience would click on and demands 1,000 words by the morning.

The story clunks its way along from there, with the script from Lilien and Wynbrandt—in its attempt to tell a story from the Millennial Perspective—coming off downright desperate to tell the audience it is aware of obscure pop culture. When Miles compares his situation to the 1997 film The Game, his techie co-worker Rakesh (Suraj Sharma) immediately responds, “Oh, great flick, early Fincher.” As he tries to get Cara to admit she is behind the God account, Miles very naturally says, “Wow, you are a committed actor. What, did you study with Stella Adler or something?” If the God Friended Me script was a person it would 100% pretend to love IPAs.

And yet, again, this show is kind of a blast to experience. Part of that is down to sheer earnestness; God Friended Me presents its many, many heavy-handed themes with such a wide-eyed straight face you can’t possibly be mad at it. At one crucial point that I dare not spoil, a character spends several minutes summing up the events you just saw and concludes with the line “It’s kind of like a grand design.” By that point, you’re so ashamedly wrapped up in the ludicrous twists of these beautiful people’s stupid lives that you’re like, “Wow it is kind of like that.”

A much larger part of that comes down to Brandon Micheal Hall as Miles. Hall is endlessly likable in the role, which is the show’s one actual miracle because the role itself is infuriating for most of the premiere. Miles is every negative atheist stereotype come to life, cornering you at happy hour because you said “God bless you” after someone sneezed. In one scene, Miles’ sister Ali (Javicia Leslie)—who we see out from behind the bar where she works in the premiere—actually says “oh, here we go” after someone makes the mistake of bringing up God in front of Miles. But Hall gives the character an easy, confident charm, so even his most stubborn prodding at least seems like its coming from a helpful place, not a troll-y one.

Having Hall to anchor the show is good, because the story swirling around him is bonkers. In an attempt to reach teary-eyed, Life Itself-style everything-is-connected loftiness, God Friended Me takes some capital-D Dramatic turns. Hacking is involved. For what it’s worth, the pilot episode introduces the idea that “God” is actually a tech-wizard with the ability to code-predict the future, which is a Mr. Robot meets Preacher thriller that this show is assuredly not. By the time the show ramps up the melodrama to reveal the reason Miles became an atheist, it is so ridiculously, over-the-top horrible that, God help me (or at least DM me), I laughed. In any other context it would be just the most tragic, horrible piece of character development, but delivered in God Friended Me‘s increasingly straight-faced Sunday school style it comes off as funny. If it helps, several scenes later a character gets hit by a car and—twelve years of Catholic school save me—I laughed then, too.

“In these crazy times we live in, we owe it to ourselves to ask the tough questions and to open our minds to a new way of seeing the world,” Miles says late in the premiere. If that new way of seeing the world means watching this strange, stilted melodrama about faith and Facebook because it brings you some type of unexplainable joy, so be it.

Rating: ★★★

God Friended Me premieres on CBS Sunday, September 30.