Miracle Workers, the anthology series based in part on Simon Rich’s What In God’s Name, has always made a game of deploying its stakes. The first season opened with God’s (Steve Buscemi, in all his leisure suit-clad glory) plan to blow up the Earth so he could focus on his latest dream: running a fusion restaurant. Tensions were high, as the fate of humanity rested on two people (played by Sasha Compère and Jon Bass) falling in love, but the story still made time for great sight gags and the ineffable bond between Prayer Department angels Craig (Daniel Radcliffe) and Eliza (Geraldine Viswanathan). The series captured Rich’s inspired interplay between the ordinary and extraordinary–of course, his vision of the apocalypse would involve something as deceptively commonplace as true love, and take place in a hilariously outdated Heaven.
The second season, subtitled Dark Ages, took a different route, gradually marching to all-out war, reversing the fortunes of Radcliffe’s and Buscemi’s characters while Viswanathan and Karan Soni remained as canny as ever as Al Shitshoveler and Lord Vexler, respectively. But some of season one’s themes carried over, along with the show’s unwavering belief that we can, eventually, get it right. Likewise, Miracle Workers: Oregon Trail has strong traces of its predecessors, including a life-threatening conundrum and some occasionally misguided group efforts.
The season-three premiere, “Hittin’ The Trail,” wastes no time setting up its premise: It’s 1844, and cholera and a series of meager harvests have ravaged a small town. Ezekiel Brown (Radcliffe), the town’s preacher, struggles to keep his flock in good spirits; he’s started to question God’s plan himself. But after an impromptu double funeral, Zeke decides he has to do something, so he grabs the good book—that is, The Emigrant’s Guide To Oregon. The reverend thinks he can lead the town to salvation in Oregon (given that real-life missionaries often led the forays onto the Oregon Trail, he’s not entirely in the wrong), but his congregation has their doubts. But Prudence Aberdeen (Viswanathan), a photographer and the wife of one of the richest men in town (Bass as Todd Aberdeen), is willing to back Zeke’s play, if only to finally have some adventure in her life.
Written by Dan Mirk and Robert Padnick, who are now co-showrunners, “Hittin’ The Trail” is an economical episode, knocking the dust of the unnamed town off its feet in order to explore the perilous but ostensibly promising Oregon Trail. Even if the expeditiousness was likely caused by COVID delays to production, as well as all the new safety guidelines, it works within the context of the story. We understand why everyone’s desperate enough to follow the lead of the mysterious stranger (Buscemi) who stumbles into town, with a back full of bullets and a similar need to be somewhere, anywhere else. He gives the name Jim Nobody, but—gasp—it turns out he’s actually a notorious outlaw named Benny The Teen. The townspeople, including Zeke, see him as their guide and savior, but it’s not long before Zeke’s Christian ways turn him into a doubting Thomas.
The rush to get on the road means the jokes are a bit sparse in the first four minutes or so, but the premiere picks up in the back half. After a brief run-in with an oblivious U.S. marshal, the group runs into a gunslinger (Soni), whose name is definitely not Dingus, who’s been trying to bring The Teen to justice for years. Zeke can’t wait to give Benny up to the bounty hunter, in part because he believes it’s the right thing to do, but he also seems a bit envious of how quickly the outlaw was able to earn the town’s confidence.
The preacher only grows more compromised as the episode unfolds, eventually despairing in front of Prue that he doesn’t know if God is testing him or trying to punish him. As usual, Viswanathan’s character makes the most sense: “Maybe God’s okay with you doing a little bad if it means doing a lot of good.” This snaps Zeke out of his self-flagellation in time for him to team up with Prue to rescue Benny, but that line is more than just a great pep talk—I get the feeling moral relativism will rear its head on the Oregon Trail more than once.
Once they’re all reunited, everyone returns to their prescribed roles. Zeke resumes looking after his flock and down on Benny, Prue returns to Todd’s side to tend to his self-inflicted wounds, and the new wagonmaster remains a wild card. But everyone’s already had a taste of a different life: Zeke’s made his own rules, Prue’s had real agency, and even Benny seems to be settling into the group. They all had to leave something behind to get a glimpse of the path not yet traveled, and it probably won’t be the last time.
New showrunners Dan Mirk and Robert Padnick, who worked on previous seasons of Miracle Workers, as well Man Seeking Woman, shake up the previous dynamics. Viswanathan and Bass played brother and sister in Dark Ages; now they’re husband and wife. Buscemi is a different breed of endearing rascal. But Radcliffe and Viswanathan’s characters are once again intrinsically connected; they recognize something in each other that no one else can see. Zeke and Prue have faith in each other, which, let’s face it, is an increasingly rare thing. It’s already been enough to make Zeke and Prue go against the grain, so there’s no telling where that faith will lead them on the Oregon Trail. But I can’t wait to find out.
- Andrew DeYoung directed “Hittin’ The Trail,” further extending the Man Seeking Woman reunion.
- I wish he had a bit more to do in the premiere, but Soni’s presence is always welcome, and not just because he wears the hell out of that black duster and hat combo—he does “aggrieved” like no one else.
- Ezekiel Brown’s “standard” English childhood would put Harry Potter’s to shame: beaten by the headmistress, dancing naked for pennies, and “pennies really hurt.”
- Benny starting off by claiming German heritage and then trailing off into various other European nationalities—Dutch, Scottish, French—is actually peak American.
- I so enjoy watching Daniel Radcliffe find different flavors of optimism in his Miracle Workers performances: As Craig, it was much more tentative; as Chauncley, it was bafflingly unerring. Now, as a man of the cloth, it’ll be interesting to see how he interprets that sense of hope.
- I think I’m part of the Oregon Trail generation, which seems to have been split up between Gen X and millennials at some point, which is actually a very Gen X kind of thing.
- TBS only sent out one advance screener, so we couldn’t do a full pre-air. But this way, we can drop back in throughout the season!