God is everywhere and in everything — including your favorite comedies.
The unexpected breakout star of winter TV is none other than the Lord himself, whose divine presence is felt in a number of cable and network shows this season.
Friday (8 ET/PT), Disney Channel airs an episode of coming-of-age dramedy Andi Mack that’s set entirely at a lead character’s bar mitzvah. On Monday, CBS premieres sitcom Living Biblically (9:30 ET/PT), which follows a man named Chip (Jay R. Ferguson) who decides to live his life strictly in accordance with the Bible after his best friend dies and wife Leslie (Lindsey Kraft) becomes pregnant.
Comedies including HBO’s Crashing (Sundays, 10:30 ET/PT), CBS’ Young Sheldon (Thursdays, 8:30 ET/PT) and Fox’s The Mick (Tuesdays, 9:30 ET/PT) also have tackled topics of church, faith and spirituality in new episodes.
So why are more TV characters being born again?
“The reason that so few shows have been done about religion until right about now is it’s scary, it’s intimidating,” says Living Biblically creator Patrick Walsh (Crashing). “People feel so strongly in what they believe and don’t like it talked about. For whatever reason, this topic that unites so many people in the world is kept quiet.”
As sitcoms wade into more serious subject matter such as politics and race, “this is a great time to take things that are important to people, show them as they really are and use them for storytelling and not for joke-telling,” says Andi Mack creator Terri Minsky (Lizzie McGuire, Less Than Perfect). “People are just freer to tell stories, and religion is an important part of people’s lives.”
That’s certainly true for Cyrus (Joshua Rush), best friend to Andi (Peyton Elizabeth Lee), who has spent the second season preparing for his bar mitzvah. The idea was pitched by Rush, who, like Minsky, is Jewish. Much of the character’s bar mitzvah, filmed in a Salt Lake City synagogue, is inspired by the actor’s real-life celebration: Rush wears the same traditional tallit (shawl) as he did for his own initiation ceremony, and he reads the same Hebrew passage from the Torah. The traditional song Hava Nagila and hora “chair dance” also are featured in the episode’s party scene.
“It had all the hallmarks of a real bar mitzvah — I might as well have just gotten the certificate while I was at it,” Rush says, laughing. Ultimately, the goal is to “give kids at home a chance to see another person’s culture. The more that we see and understand each others’ culture, the more accepting we are of each other.”
Walsh similarly hopes to inspire conversations among people of different faiths with Biblically, loosely based on Esquire editor A.J. Jacobs’ non-fiction book The Year of Living Biblically. The show mines laughs from the modern-day struggles of trying to closely follow Scripture as Chip gives up false idols (his smartphone and social media) and tries to pray away his problems (getting stuck in an elevator and appeasing his atheist mother-in-law).
While some of that humor was apparent in the book, “it’s a (network) comedy for a broad audience, so tonally, it was very tricky,” Walsh says. But taping in front of a live audience every week, “I found that people were starved for this kind of conversation. Particularly in some of the later episodes that dig deeper into theology,” such as one that finds Chip and Leslie sparring over the Bible’s outdated ideals of a submissive wife, and ultimately concluding that they’re equals.
To accurately portray the rabbi (David Krumholtz) and priest (Ian Gomez) who make up Chip’s advice-giving “God Squad,” Walsh called on Jewish and Catholic consultants to read scripts. He also enlisted a spiritually diverse team of writers, ranging from non-believers to the devout.
“It just lent to much more interesting conversations than you generally get in a writers’ room, and I hope a pretty balanced portrayal of religion and faith,” Walsh says. Although Chip attends a Baptist church, the idea is “to bring in other religions and explore other churches” if the show is picked up for future seasons.
After years of “sword and sandals” epics and saccharine family fare, modern consumers of faith-based entertainment are eager for fresh perspectives like these.
“I think most of us know people — sometimes really close friends and family members — that don’t share our beliefs, but we still love and cherish and want to share our lives with (them),” says Paul Asay, senior associate editor of Focus on the Family’s Christian pop culture site Plugged In. “Some of these shows reflect that tension, the desire for connection and even sometimes the beautiful interactions that can result.”
In the second-season premiere of Crashing, for instance, recently divorced comic Pete Holmes (playing a version of himself) has a chance encounter with magician and atheist Penn Jillette, who makes him question his belief in God. He continues to wrestle with faith in later episodes after testing the waters of raunchier stand-up material and having his first one-night stand.
“Pete’s love for God in Season 1 was very conditional, meaning he loved God because everything was going his way,” Holmes says. “But in Season 2, Pete is trying to reconcile his understanding of some sort of divine source, in light of all the loss and pain we all undergo. He’s going out and meeting people, and trying to get a richer understanding of the divine — not just a bodyguard in the clouds he can ask favors.”
It’s a complicated yet funny spiritual journey that’s mirrored in Biblically as Pete and Chip realize there’s no such thing as a perfect Christian.
“We have characters misinterpreting the words of Christ as ‘Like everybody.’ You don’t have to like everybody,” Holmes says. “Look at all the comedy that we can find from people misinterpreting these ancient, beautiful, spiritual texts. I think that’s why it’s fun.”