Monday, August 29, 2022

God's Favourite Idiot

Looking for something with short episodes to watch at lunchtimes, we happened across the series God's Favourite Idiot on Netflix. It stars Ben Falcone as the titular character - mild-mannered Clark, who is selected by God to convey a message of peace and love to all humankind, even though humankind isn't receptive to that message at all. Falcone's wife Melissa McCarthy also stars as Clark's love interest Amelie. Mild spoilers follow the publicity picture below.

The show meanders through eight episodes, setting up Clark's call to be God's messenger, his various failed attempts to get the message out, and the way the situation gets ramped up once Satan turns up to try and destroy him. Throw in an obnoxious televangelist who has made a deal with Satan so he can be on TV, the four horse-people of the apocalypse, and Clark's loyal, yet simple, co-workers and first disciples, and it seems like there could be a good TV show in there somewhere.

Sadly, it isn't that good. It felt as if Netflix saw the success of the adaptation of Good Omens on Amazon Prime and decided to try and get some of that playing-religion-for-laughs action. Good Omens did it better. Much better. Netflix presumably realised this because God's Favourite Idiot got cancelled halfway through it's planned run. The shortened series of just eight episodes ends with the final episode leaving the story hanging as if it would be continued. 

The feeling this was a subpar retread of Good Omens wasn't all that was wrong with the show. The scripts were patchy, with the feel that several scenes were being improvised by the cast. If that was how they were filming things then it needed sharper editing. There wasn't much pace in the sequence of events. While there were some funny scenes, there was too much reliance on Melissa McCarthy doing her trademark aggressive sweary ranting as if that was hilarious. It was annoyingly one-note, especially because she can do much more if it's demanded from her. 

However, I still found the series watchable. While the story plays fast and loose with (mainly Christian) religious concepts, there are two particular angles that tweaked my professional interest as a freelance theologian on hiatus

Firstly, there is a generic-ality to the religious "truth" presented in the message to Clark. When he meets God, in the guise of an elderly woman, in the bathroom at work, he is told that all religions are right and that as long as you are trying to love someone then you're on the right track. I don't think I've seen a clearer expression of the generic approach to religion on mainstream TV before. 

This summary is what people who don't have many - or any - deep religious convictions want religions to be like. They want religions to be about love, peace, harmony and goodness. There's an assumption that all religions are the same and seeking the same ends, and those ends are nice. It's how religions should be in the eyes of people who believe in a generic, fluffy, sorta Christian concept of God, heaven and all the rest. 

Within Clark's circle of friends, including his Muslim friend, this message is accepted. Mohsin, the Muslim character, is the only one who admits that he doesn't go to mosque very often or even know whether he really believes. Clark's other friends presumably define themselves as 'Christian', although one did say that she hadn't been sure whether there was a God or not. Clark and Amelie are both well versed enough to recognise certain religious concepts come to life, like the heralds of the apocalypse, so we can assume some Christian knowledge there. 

The second thing that struck me was the depiction of overt Christians. There is a televangelist, Reverend Throp, who denounces Clark as a scammer, but who then signs a contract with Satan (in human form) so that he can appear on America's Own Holy Network (pronounced as America's Unholy Network, with the implication that it's run by Satan). Throp coins an exclusivist catchphrase that "Only the righteous are right!" This exclusivism is in direct contrast to Clark's inclusivist revelation from God.

But there are also crowds of angry protesters gathered around Clark's house, paralleling the real life evangelical Christian protestors that accompany any religion-related news stories from America these days. These Christians are nasty, threatening, and are perfectly willing to brick Clark's windows. 

The snarling face of Evangelicalism as it has become in America isn't often directly challenged through portrayals like this. But what made me pause was the way the show just assumed this is how Evangelicals would react to anything they didn't understand or agree with - paint lurid placards and denounce the blasphemer. 

It's hard to argue that the scriptwriters were wrong. 

So, all in all, what to make of this TV show. It was derivative. Some of it seemed to be aimed at trying to upset and annoy religious zealots. There were some funny bits that made me chuckle. But it was the unintentional things that will stick with me - it didn't feel like the show deliberately set out to hold up a mirror to society to reveal what lots of people actually think about religion, and yet that's what it inadvertently ended up doing, making it more meaningful than anyone expected.

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