Social media provides some of the most universal experiences of millennial life: Almost everybody under the age of 30 has accidentally liked a crush’s old Instagram photo or sent a Snapchat to the wrong person. It’s only natural that popular culture should reflect our newfound obsession with social networks. Without them we’d have no “Black Mirror,” no memes, and no moody Drake lyrics about his ex. If the Internet can make us care about Drake’s love life, shouldn’t it be able to make us care about religion, too?
This question seems to have motivated the production of “God Friended Me,” a new entry into the canon of technology-driven television, which is exactly what its title suggests. The show seeks to answer a question that nobody ever really thought to ask: What would it be like to get a friend request from God? The fallout from this unexpected online interaction serves as the basis for the plot of the pilot episode, which was written by Steven Lilien and Bryan Wynbrandt. Lilien and Wynbrandt have written in the past for “Gotham” and “Hawaii Five-O” and their experience comes to light in the unexpected elements of procedural drama that pop up throughout “God Friended Me.”
Miles, the show’s protagonist (played by Brandon Michael Hall), works in New York City as a telemarketer by day and an aspiring podcaster by night. His podcast, called “The Millennial Prophet,” serves as a platform for him to promote his atheist beliefs: The brief clip that we hear him record features the blunt statement “There is no God, and that is Okay!” Soon after this scene, we learn that Miles’s father Arthur (Joe Morton) works as a minister, and suddenly the central tension between the show’s characters becomes clear. Miles, a fervent unbeliever, has constantly found himself at odds with his overtly religious father ever since his mother’s death in a car accident made him reconsider his faith.
The drama of the show begins to unfold as soon as Miles, just after recording another podcast, receives a friend request from none other than God himself. Eventually, after a series of divine omens appear all around him, he accepts the request. Throughout the show, God sends Miles notifications, suggesting new friends who he inevitably runs into in the real world. Miles saves his first new friend from a suicide attempt, and helps the second get over writer’s block. As the action unfolds, Miles refuses to believe that the online messages are really God’s work, and instead tries to find the person who could be catfishing him in such an elaborate way.
“God Friended Me” actually does a few things very well: Its characters are mostly well developed, its plot moves along at a compelling pace, and the earnestness with which it handles its premise is somewhat refreshing. However, in spite of the effectiveness of the show’s premise as a hook to draw viewers in, it seems unsure of how it actually wants to move forward. First of all, the pilot alone was full of far too many clichés. We’ve all seen way too many shows about a group of 20–somethings living and working in New York, never mind the fact that one of them is an Indian hacker who lives in his mom’s basement. Second, for a show about technology, “God Friended Me” does not seem to have a very good understanding of tech culture. Every single office that the characters occupy, even Miles’s telemarketing office, looks like some variation on a generic Silicon Valley startup. Furthermore, characters make strange passing comments like “I’m on Bumble bro, nobody uses Tinder anymore” that suggest that the showrunners are either doing a really ineffective job of subtle product placement or trying in vain to establish their credibility as people who know about tech.
Most irksome of all is the fact that the show seems entirely unable to settle on a particular tone. It could very easily lean into the comedy inherent in its premise, yet it appears reluctant to do so, instead imbuing its characters with complex emotional histories (the death of a mother, an alcoholic mother, etc.) that make it difficult to laugh at them at all. At the same time, though, the show is clearly dissatisfied with being a pure drama: In one scene, Rakesh (Suraj Sharma), has sex in Miles’s apartment with a girl his mom set him up with before being interrupted by a new wave of God’s hacking. “God Friended Me” labels itself a “dramedy,” but although such a balance of drama and comedy can be effective when handled well, it leads instead to jarring tonal shifts that keep viewers from ever really knowing how to feel.
All in all, “God Friended Me” puts forth a compellingly strange idea as its central premise, but its mishandled tone and out-of-touch “real millennial culture” is bemusing but ultimately dissatisfying.