The key word in the title of Miracle Workers, TBS’s seven-episode comedy premiering Tuesday night, is workers. As envisioned by Simon Rich, the former SNL writer and creator of surrealist dating fable Man Seeking Woman, heaven is actually Heaven Inc. Keeping Earth running takes a lot of elbow grease and even more byzantine bureaucracy, with departments dedicated to everything from snowflakes to genitals. Some employees, like Eliza (Geraldine Viswanathan), throw themselves into their work with chipper enthusiasm; others, like Eliza’s new partner, Craig (Daniel Radcliffe), put their heads down and try to make it through the millennia. Heading it all up is a decidedly unimpressive God, played by Steve Buscemi as a Dude-like slacker eternally draped in a bathrobe, but with a truly upsetting amount of authority his underlings do their best to keep him from abusing.
It’s this professional angle that distinguishes Miracle Workers from its competition—which is good, because there’s quite a lot. Miracle Workers is, incredibly, the fourth show set in some version of the afterlife to premiere in recent years, joining NBC’s The Good Place in 2016, Amazon’s Forever, and Netflix’s recent Russian Doll. (These series even share a creative family tree: Both Rich and The Good Place’s Mike Schur did stints at SNL; Schur then employed Forever’s Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard on Parks and Recreation, which starred Amy Poehler, cocreator of Russian Doll.) Nor will Miracle Workers be the last entry in this boom within a boom: Amazon’s upcoming Upload, created by The Office’s Greg Daniels, “takes place in the near future, where people who are near death can be ‘uploaded’ into a virtual afterlife of their choice.”
All four afterlife shows are, at the very least, an enjoyable watch; Miracle Workers is a high-minded spin on the classic office farce, while Russian Doll is a wildly impressive debut from some newcomers to the TV landscape. And yet, in our limited attention spans and limitless appetite for made-up competitions, only one show that literally laughs in the face of death can reign supreme. To that end, I’ve ranked each show according to four vital criteria: originality, low-key nihilism, ambient anxiety, and old-school sitcom cred. First place in a category earns four points, fourth place gets one point, and so on. Let the thunderdome commence!
The Good Place, Forever, and Miracle Workers each offer a different iteration of the afterlife to fit their themes of choice: morality, long-term monogamy, and autonomy within a vast corporate machine, respectively. Still, they all share a vision of heaven, or fake heaven, as a streamlined, allegorical version of everyday life, the edges sanded off to better showcase the points they’re trying to make about the human condition. On The Good Place, it’s that people are undeniably flawed but capable of change, or at least inspiring it in others; on Forever, it’s that monogamy is as much a shackle as a refuge; on Miracle Workers, it’s that giant systems tend to lose sight of their original purpose and get mired in a listless status quo. And so we get a Rube Goldberg experiment, or a cul-de-sac perpetually at golden hour, or a warren of cubicles dedicated to producing dirt. Both Forever and Miracle Workers leave their details intentionally vague; The Good Place delights in filling loopholes with concepts like the Jeremy Bearimy theory of time, albeit not ones grounded in the laws of physics, let alone everyday existence as we know it.
On Russian Doll, however, what comes after life is simply … more life, in all its variety and chaos and complexity. Where its contemporaries go broad to address an experience as universal as ceasing to exist, Russian Doll invests in its details, from bodega cats to TLC jokes, and uses them to guide the audience toward its philosophical side. The resulting roughed-up texture already stands in contrast to Forever’s manicured sub-developments or Miracle Workers’ many-tiered org chart, leveraging Natasha Lyonne’s OG downtown cool and Leslye Headland’s eye for lewd humor and female misbehavior toward a surprisingly existential end. The deliberately niche appeal, in other words, pays off. Though Russian Doll has its own clear influences, from Groundhog Day to All That Jazz, it’s drawing from a different well than its peers and benefits accordingly.
1. Russian Doll (+4)
2. The Good Place (+3)
3. Miracle Workers (+2)
4. Forever (+1)
Squint hard enough at the seemingly sunnier afterlife shows, however, and you’ll find a chasm of existential despair; in 2019, it’s practically a prerequisite for any aspiring sitcom. In addition to being the originator of this Peak TV mini-trend, The Good Place is also a leader in deceptively upbeat angst. The nominal portrait of a cosmic resort community is actually a lament for the impossibly complicated nature of human lives and the futility of judging them, an identity it’s finally started to center in its recently concluded third season. A show that began by asking how one becomes a good person is now asking whether becoming a good person is enough, given that we’re karmically screwed from the start.
Miracle Workers, too, has a clever conceit that temporarily distracts from a borderline nightmare of a premise. Heaven Inc. isn’t an improvement on the world it’s controlling from afar; it’s an extension of it, or rather, vice versa. The setup is funny but also awful: What if the flip side of a life of thankless toil was … more work? Specifically, for an underqualified white guy who takes credit for your successes, makes you feel bad for your failures, and only has his job out of nepotism? According to Miracle Workers, the occupants of heaven live as we do: under the boot of inefficient, unequal, late-stage capitalism, where they try to make the best of their circumstances but likely never change them.
Fortunately, misery is a continuum, and sometimes even subjective. Forever’s, for instance, looks more like a comfortable malaise, which earned the series some initial criticism—for how many people, after all, is an eternity of material comfort such a terrible fate? But the point eventually turns out to be moot, because Forever is what you make of it, and a partner can be as much a solace as a burden. The high note the season ends on is as genuine as the preceding suburban bliss is ironic.
Surprisingly, Russian Doll—the superficially darkest of the four, and not just because it takes place largely after hours—turns out to be the most sincerely optimistic. Its protagonists may be in the throes of addiction, dependency, denial, and repression, but their seeming punishment turns out to be more of a second chance. Nadia and Alan’s never-ending night out becomes an opportunity to right the course of their lives, and both emerge the better for it. The show becomes an inversion of the afterlife show’s typical tragicomedy, taking a hairpin turn not into darkness, but toward the light.
1. The Good Place (+4)
2. Miracle Workers (+3)
3. Forever (+2)
4. Russian Doll (+1)
We arrive at the other reason TV suddenly seems so obsessed with death right now. The sheer volume of Peak TV makes some overlap inevitable, especially when the entertainment industry’s largesse is often concentrated on such a small group of writers. But there’s also the zeitgeist said writers are responding to—namely, a global conflagration that can’t help but inspire big-picture questions of divine authority, ultimate judgment, and what it all means. Or, to quote The Good Place: Earth is a mess.
Coming after the civic-minded, decidedly Obama-era optimism of Parks and Recreation, The Good Place is the most explicit response to the state of the world, right down to its infamous reveal: All this peace and prosperity is actually a nightmare rigged in favor of a small minority, and now the heroes are compelled to do something about it. Russian Doll, with its focus on two intertwined lives and approximately four square blocks, is narrower in its concern. Nevertheless, some would argue the show reflects a worry of its own—specifically, this Twitter thread from New York Times critic Jason Zinoman, co-signed by Lyonne and Headland themselves. In short: As The Good Place reflects distress at a changing world, Russian Doll reflects the same feeling about a changing New York, a product of many of the same, ruthlessly profit-minded forces.
Based on Rich’s 2012 novel What in God’s Name, Miracle Workers is inherently less responsive to recent world events. Regardless, its vision of heaven as a corporate dystopia from well, not-exactly hell feels part of a larger interest in our hamster wheel of an economy in decay, the same kind that’s given rise to other shows like Corporate and Silicon Valley. The outrage is subtle and mostly played for laughs, but it’s there. Of the four, Forever is the only one that feels almost entirely, if deliberately, divorced from anything but its central couple. Forever’s clarity of purpose is admirable, but it also may have been more of a roadblock to viewers curious about how eternity was treating everyone else, not just the suburban ennui-havers at its core.
1. The Good Place (+4)
2. Russian Doll (+3)
3. Miracle Workers (+2)
4. Forever (+1)
Old-School Sitcom Cred
At the end of the day, though, all these shows’ supernatural elements are just that—elements superimposed on top of otherwise recognizable templates. The Good Place is a platonic hangout between four unlikely, if fast, friends; Forever is a relationship drama with traces of a family sitcom; Miracle Workers is, as the name implies, a workplace comedy; Russian Doll is an urban satire in the vein of Girls, Broad City, or High Maintenance. Which means they can also be judged by the basic criterion of any sitcom: Do I like spending time with these people?
Viewed in this light, Miracle Workers suffers the most damage. With just seven episodes and a heavily metaphorical concept, there’s not much time to flesh out its heroes beyond the abstract roles they’re meant to play in the plot. That’s by design, but it also doesn’t help its token tryhards, worrywarts, and slackers to stick beyond an initial ping of recognition. Forever has a double trump card in Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen—triple, if you count Catherine Keener—though again, a limited run time and deliberately broad characters keep the viewer at an arm’s length. By the time June and Oscar walk off into the sunset, you certainly wish them well. You also don’t want to follow them.
That leaves The Good Place and Russian Doll, an expert exercise in ensemble building and an equally masterful, if much more focused, dual character study. In some ways, they’re apples and oranges, a family-friendly network half hour with G-rated swears versus a streaming flex that starts with Israeli cocaine and ramps up from there. In others, they pull off the same trick of building grand, mystery-box reveals (no one here really deserves to be in the Good Place! It all comes back to Nadia’s mom!) on intimate, personal details. Still, what’s the point of an arbitrary ranking if you can’t make snap judgments about totally dissimilar subjects? It may be the recency bias talking, but Nadia and Alan’s complementary dysfunction and unlikely platonic chemistry takes the win.
1. Russian Doll (+4)
2. The Good Place (+3)
3. Forever (+2)
4. Miracle Workers (+1)
Russian Doll has enjoyed a justifiably rapturous reception for its freshman outing, all the more impressive for making its case in just eight half-hour episodes. Still, The Good Place ably weaves together modern ambition with classical appeal, streaming-era storytelling with network consistency. It’s also kept this balancing act up for years, give or take a few wobbles; even after a rocky third season, Schur’s brainchild retains credit for inaugurating an entire genre within a genre. While I’d recommend both Forever or Miracle Workers to anyone with a spare afternoon and a hefty dose of SNL and/or Harry Potter nostalgia, both feel relatively slight in comparison to their (likely soon-to-be) multiseason peers. For now, at least, The Good Place remains the standard-bearer for laughing in the face of death—and then asking what comes next.
1. The Good Place (14 points)
2. Russian Doll (12 points)
3. Miracle Workers (8 points)
4. Forever (6 points)