The new CBS series God Friended Me isn’t an out-and-out comedy, per se. Though it would suggest an impressive amount of obliviousness to not realize that the title—again, God Friended Me—would elicit its own fair share of laughs.
In a cynical world, the reflex is to scoff at the concept. Miles Finer (Brandon Michael Hall) hosts a podcast about atheism, but finds his views tested once he receives a Facebook request from God, complete with friend recommendations for strangers who need Miles’s saving. Maybe CBS, which premieres God Friended Me Sunday night, is banking on that cynicism, using it as a springboard for counter-programming: This is a show for the earnest among us. Cynics need not DVR.
Of course, that in itself is vaguely contradictory, given the dueling concepts here of faith and Facebook. The church, God, religion, spirituality: they stand in one corner, lit by the light of the lord. Social media, on other hand, lurks in a far darker, scuzzier corner, one where that aforementioned cynicism spreads, toxicity incubates, hate gets a megaphone, and the forest is lost through 280-character trees.
Sure, as most of us can attest, these worlds aren’t always in opposition. And in some ways, it’s that very opposition that lends the series its intrigue.
Still, you can’t shake the idea after watching the first episode of God Friended Me Sunday night that some studio exec logged onto Facebook and just thought, “You know, my aunt is always posting Bible verses on my wall. Maybe that’s a show?”
You’ll never catch Miles Finer sharing Bible verses. Calling himself “The Millennial Prophet” on his podcast, he signs off by “reminding you that there is no God and that is OK.” He finds those people who think God is talking to them through a burning bush to be insane. “I just want to help people take responsibility for their own lives. I think we’ll all be better off if they did.”
That’s when God friends him. You might think there’s more to that major plot point than that, but nope. That’s about it. He’s walking down the street, and God friends him.
Miles deletes the request. He’s friended again. Then God recommends another friend, John Dove, whom Miles doesn’t know. But moments later, Miles sees John on the street. He’s upset. His girlfriend is breaking up with him. John flees to the subway, and Miles feels compelled to follow him—just in time, as John is about to jump in front of the train and take his own life.
This plot rinses and repeats, albeit more complicatedly, when Miles gets another friend suggestion from God, for a stranger named Cara Bloom. You get the general idea of how the show is going to go now.
Will you watch it? On top of everything else that puts us off personally—the corniness, the melodrama, the deus ex machina (we know…), the ambiguous morals—we can’t pinpoint who exactly this show is for.
It’s not for the jaded. Oh no, by the time Miles has his come-to-Jesus, so to speak, on his podcast about his own beliefs, they will have long since fled. And the God-fearing tuning in for a night of faith-based programming on the Day of the Lord, even if they get over the hurdle of an atheist protagonist, might not be so into the whole “God has given up on angels and now is just reaching out to us through social media” thing.
One could argue that a new series having no discernible audience would be a potential roadblock to its success. On the other hand, in an age when TV shows can secure long runs by appealing to just one targeted demographic, there is something so remarkable about this show appealing to no one that it could somehow reverse-engineer some miraculous mass appeal. Or maybe everyone involved is just banking on some divine intervention. Surprise! You all love this show. The power of God commands it.
Snark aside, we understand how the heady nature of this premise was catnip to CBS, the High Holy Church of high-concept programming. A man is compelled to do good because God reached out to him through social media. It’s the kind of idea that really does sound brilliant until you realize it’s stupid. “It’s Touched By an Angel, but with Facebook!”
But here’s the thing: It’s not at all like Touched By an Angel. That was a glorious, uplifting series that directly and effectively engaged with its audience by wearing its religion and its spirituality on its sleeve, telegraphing its message of faith as brightly as the warm glow emanating from Roma Downey as she told you not to be scared, she’s an angel of God.
God Friended Me, on the other hand, is a series supposedly about the power of faith, but which largely tiptoes around the topic. Not that there isn’t some sleight of hand: Miles’ dad is a reverend and we see him preach. See, religion! Oh, and there’s the fact that the Facebook messages come from someone named “God.” But is it God? And what does it say about religion?
The show goes so far as to make sure we know that Miles isn’t suddenly abandoning his atheism when he surrenders himself to his new work as a prophet. Instead, he’s just raising the question of “what if,” which is more a manipulation of faith than any sort of provocative or meaningful engagement with it, like we’re meant to believe God Friended Me is.
To that end, there may be critics who find bringing religion into this show so superficially—basically, as branding—crass, and they would have a point. CBS has done this series before, the whole predictive saviors thing, with everyday people who solve crimes and/or rescue lost souls because of some wild conceit that allows them to divine the future or find people who need help. There’s Early Edition, Ghost Whisperer, Medium, The Mentalist, and many more.
Cyber shows and series that incorporate our ever-growing and ever-problematic obsession with technology are fun. Hacking social media to save lives? That’s a concept! God as the hacker? That’s bordering on sacrilege. At the very least, it’s ridiculous. Worse, as portrayed on God Friended Me, it’s just boring.
Cheeky takes on religion make good selling points to greenlight a potential series, but audiences have proven time and again that, whatever the quality of the show in question—be it Kevin (Probably) Saves the World, Living Biblically, Impastor, or GCB—they won’t respond to it. There is room for faith-based programming. In fact it tends to be very popular, provided that it actually centers faith earnestly. (Think Promised Land, Joan of Arcadia, the aforementioned Touched By an Angel, and all the way back to The Waltons.)
So at this rate, it’s unclear what would benefit God Friended Me more: a rewrite, enough Facebook likes to go viral, or a prayer.