What does God need with a Starbucks?
That’s the question that haunts us as we contemplate God’s Favorite Idiot, Netflix’s new attempt to capture the high-concept, existential sitcom energy of Mike Schur’s The Good Place—except without the sense of breakneck pacing, relentless reinvention, and supreme confidence that made that series such a thrilling, unpredictable adventure through its convoluted cosmos.
Instead, God’s Favorite Idiot banks, not unprofitably, on the charms of its two leads: wife-husband team Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone, the latter playing Clark, a “sweet, simple” guy who finds himself chosen as the prophet of a take on the Almighty whose major miracles seem confined to some not especially expensive CGI and, yes, the ability to generate Starbucks drinks—complete with logo-festooned cup—on a whim.
The banal nature of its branded brand of divine intervention is both a key part of Idiot’s comedy and one of its biggest issues: The Big G (played by Magda Szubanski, performing a credible Mary Poppins riff when she occasionally shows up) has essentially barged into a workplace sitcom centered on Clark, McCarthy’s Shellstrop-lite troublemaker Amily, and their co-workers Moshin (Usman Ally), Wendy (Ana Scotney), and Tom (Chris Sandiford). The intersection of apocalyptic business with the day-to-day bickering of office life occasionally reaps comic rewards, especially when it involves middle-manager Frisbee (Steve Mallory), the endlessly cheerful object of his various employees’ hyperbolic derision. But more often than not, the show’s sometimes endless willingness to get bogged down in office-life wordplay threatens to render the sublime mundane, rather than the other way around.
It doesn’t help that, once eventually revealed, God’s grand message to Her people amounts to little more than a limp exhortation for everyone to be a little kinder, please—a kids’ temp, decaf dogma if ever there was one. Not to harp on the point, but there’s an irony to seeing a show that uses “Harry Pottering” as a frequent verb/running joke (referring to the protective spells meant to keep Clark safe from various devils and demons who want to get in the way of his proselytizing rather than, say, rampant transphobia) go vague on hate speech or religious discrimination, with God’s full moral commandments amounting to being okay with pretty much everything unless “you’re full-on crazy-train” or “use [Her] name to hurt people.” Normally, it’d be unfair to levy that kind of moral burden on what is, overall, a fairly light situation comedy. But, then, most fairly light situation comedies don’t purport to be handing out deep existential truths about the nature of reality, right?
At least She’s chosen a pretty great avatar for a message of basic decency: Falcone, who created the series, is genuinely winning as Clark, a well-observed doofus who manages to be effortlessly beatific in unguarded moments and deeply, ramblingly awkward when put on the spot. In a rare starring role, Falcone manages to sell the idea that Clark’s all-pervading niceness might grant him the makings of an appealing prophet.
McCarthy, meanwhile, is playing all over her considerable register, from full-on bombastic trainwreck to a winning sincerity that touches on her literally lived-in, and undeniably lovely, chemistry with Falcone. Both versions of Amily are enjoyable enough to spend time with—nobody in comedy can rattle off an unashamed anecdote about self-sedation like McCarthy—but the gap between the two poles can sometimes leave the character feeling a little bit cartoonish. See also Moshin, Wendy, and Tom, all of whom have their lives upended by the oncoming Apocalypse in ways that encourage them to go about 10 percent bigger than the show’s admittedly stretchy reality can really handle. “What if stock sitcom characters were asked to contend with the literal existence of God and the end of the world?” is a neat idea and all, but the execution here sometimes misses the mark.
Ironically, God’s Favorite Idiot sometimes feels realest when it’s dealing with actual angels and demons, especially since the latter camp is represented by Leslie Bibb, playing a snarky, petty, delightful take on Satan. (She is not, the show cautions, the same entity as Beelzebub or Lucifer.) Introduced a few episodes in, Bibb clearly relishes the Hell (sorry) out of the role of tempter, killer, and would-be infernal BFF, laying on charm and menace in equal measure. It’s the stand-out performance of the show, as Bibb chameleons her way into and out of characters’ lives, offering all involved exactly what they want in the worst possible ways, and letting the demon’s stunted ambition and weirdly convincing desire to be liked bleed through.
God’s Favorite Idiot is, on the whole, a difficult show to pin down: It wants to be a cheerful treatise on religious tolerance and a Good Omens-esque riff on the foibles of celestial beings and a workplace rom-com and an occasional drama about feeling rudderless in a big, scary, seemingly meaningless world. The irony is that it’s actually a pretty solid B in terms of most of its individual aspects, and it’s only when it tries to jam all of them together into a cohesive whole that the seams start to show. The cut-in-half nature of its first season (Netflix reportedly put the brakes on the second eight episodes of its initial order to see how the first half would do) doesn’t help its sense of momentum either. As is, the show ends less on a dramatic question mark about the grand nature of the War In Heaven and more on what the whole series, ultimately feels like: a slightly sweet, not especially eventful shrug.