In the US: Sundays, 8pm, CBS. Starts September 30
TV Tropes is a nifty little site that breaks down all the clichés we’ve come to expect from TV dramas. My favourite is still the Conservation of Ninjutsu (“In any martial arts fight, there is only a finite amount of ninjutsu available to each side in a given encounter. As a result, one Ninja is a deadly threat, but an army of them are cannon fodder”) but another top entry is the Hollywood Atheist.
I do wonder if the writers of God Friended Me have read that entry, since the first episode seems like a deliberate attempt to rattle off the entire list of Hollywood Atheist clichés. It sees Brandon Micheal Hall (Search Party, The Mayor) playing a call centre operative who’s trying to hit the big time with his podcast (“Atheists are materialists and probably technophiles/transhumanists/roboticists as well”) in which he loudly debunks the existence of God (“Atheists show contempt, dislike, or even hatred towards religion and gods”) while guests with minimal counterarguments seem to flummox Hall (“Atheists are somehow simply unaware of religion”).
Why is Hall like this, particularly given his dad (Joe Morton) is a vicar? Well, just as his mum had finally been cured of cancer, she was killed in a car accident and that turned Hall against Him (“A Cynicism Catalyst or some other trauma, or a miserable life in general was the direct cause of their ‘conversion’ to atheism, as well as a Rage Against the Heavens at a God who lets such things happen.”)
Oddly, one day, after a particularly vehement anti-God tirade, Hall starts getting Facebook friend requests from an account called “GOD”. GOD proves persistent, so Hall eventually relents and friends GOD. GOD doesn’t then actually say much and doesn’t appear to have even set His marital status, etc; instead, GOD just starts suggesting Hall friend other people. And when Hall does, he finds they mysteriously turn up in his real life in need of help.
Determined to track down the person behind the account, Hall allies himself with GOD’s second friend suggestion (The Flash‘s Violett Beane), an online journalist who’s stuck for story material, as well as his nerdy co-worker hacker pal Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi). Before you know it, Hall’s saving more lives, as he discovers he might be part of a grander plan.
Rehashed but with a heart
It’s easy to be cynical about what is largely just Early Edition warmed up for the social media age:
So little research has gone into what podcasting and online journalism actually involve, they were probably once “DJ” and “print journalist” in the script until they were biroed out by someone when they noticed the show was going to be aimed at 20somethings, rather than CBS’s usual 60+ audience. How else to explain Hall’s huge studio or the fact that Beane is castigated by her editor for not having written a 1,000 word feature article for six weeks. If you can’t knock out a generic, 1000-word feature in a morning, you’re barely worthy of being called a journalist. Six weeks? You’ll be fired from most online sites if you don’t file six stories a day.
Knowledge about the Internet is equally shallow, with GOD’s Facebook account apparently protected by “an advanced code firewall” that only maybe one or two people in the world could have written. IP addresses can be tracked down to specific houses. No one considers simply turning off their computer when they’re worried about it getting hacked.
It’s as nonsense as the “how do you explain this miracle in the Torah if there is no God, then?” argument that stymies Hall at the start of the episode.
Of course, Early Edition didn’t exactly have a peer-reviewed journal paper explaining exactly how Kyle Chandler managed to get the next day’s paper 24 hours early; that was simply the MacGuffin that allowed it to do its real work of being a plain old nice show in which nice people helped other people and everything turned out nicely at the end.
Similarly, God Friended Me isn’t really a piece of Christian propaganda, in which the Hollywood Atheist sees the light (“The Hollywood Atheist can easily be made to reverse or reexamine their lack-of-belief if something good happens”). It does, after all, also fulfil all of TV Trope’s God clichés, too, steering clear of endorsing any particular God or even anything more than ‘a force in the universe with a grand plan’.
Instead, it’s best to think of God Friended Me‘s higher Facebook conceit more as a simple framework for Hall, Beane and co to hang out, solve other people’s problems and generally find connections with other people, love, family and happiness in a disconnected connected age – all interspersed with primary school level philosophising and theology.
Indeed, by the end of the episode, I was actually feeling a bit teary eyed after errant mother and daughter had been united, a suicidal doctor found a reason to live, true love had been kindled, and father and son had begun reconciliation. On top of that, there are some decent jokes and the young cast are all very amiable. Hall’s as personable as he was in The Mayor, while Beane’s as spunky and likeable as ever. It’s also really nice to have a show in which a lead character is a plucky, skilled journalist who heroically tries to help others.
Plus any show that can reference The Game as a plausible explanation for the writers’ contrivances deserves a little latitude.
So put aside your cynicism, try to ignore the Bigger Arguments likely to make you leak blood from your ears if you pay them much attention, and give God Friended Me a go, if you fancy watching a programme in which young people try to make a difference for the better in ordinary people’s lives.