- - Sunday, October 7, 2018

A new network television show has set its sights on the same faith-based audience that has made hits of movies such as “Heaven Is for Real,” “God’s Not Dead” and “Miracles from Heaven.”

The CBS comedy-drama “God Friended Me” debuted Sept. 30 with big ratings, attracting 10.4 million viewers who could have opted to watch an NFL game.

Airing at 8 p.m. ET on Sundays, the hourlong show focuses on Miles Finer (Brandon Micheal Hall), a podcaster who gets a social media friend request from the Lord Almighty. Though an outspoken atheist, Miles can’t ignore the request or deny the spiritual connections that suddenly flood his life. It might even bring him closer to his father (Joe Morton), a pastor whose faith hasn’t been passed down to his adult son … yet.

Brian Mitchell, a top executive of The WTA Group, which oversees faith-based marketing plans, said he approached the show’s first episode with trepidation.

“Humor is tough when it comes to the real, straight down the middle Christian or faith audience. … Very few people have had success with it,” said Mr. Mitchell, whose company helped promote the independent faith-based hit movie “War Room.”

The new show has won him over.

“It’s very inclusive of a wider audience,” Mr. Mitchell said.

That first episode teased a dramatic arc with vast potential, one that could fuel a number of seasons. Miles hesitantly goes along with the friend request, thinking it an elaborate hoax he will unravel. But as he and online journalist Cara Bloom (Violett Beane) accept and investigate God’s friend suggestions, they soon find themselves helping other people in distress.

“I love the idea that his father is a minister,” Mr. Mitchell said. “Preachers’ kids, or PKs as we call them, they get so callous. That [element] was really realistic.”

“God Friended Me” is CBS’s second attempt at prime-time, faith-based programming this year. In February, it launched “Living Biblically,” a half-hour comedy based on the popular book “The Year of Living Biblically.” The show — about a film critic/expectant father who decides to live his life according to the Bible after the death of a friend — debuted with 5 million viewers but sank to 3.5 million. It was canceled after eight episodes.

Matthew Faraci, executive producer on the upcoming TV series “The Chosen,” said a show like “God Friended Me” represents a 21st-century approach to spiritual storytelling.

“We are long-overdue for some new thinking in how we communicate faith to a new generation,” said Mr. Faraci, president of Inspire Buzz, a marketing firm that promotes family-friendly content. “The reason ‘God Friended Me’ is working is that it’s doing that, not pulling from the old playbook.”

The show’s depiction of Miles’ conflicted thoughts on faith are instantly relatable, he said.

“They’re having the conversation in the show that young people are already having. … A lot of faith content is speaking to an older generation,” Mr. Faraci said. The new show is “thought-provoking, fresh and different. It asks really good questions that people from the faith community appreciate and people who don’t come from a faith background appreciate, too.”

Faith-based films such as “War Room” and “God’s Not Dead” delivered Christian storytelling without apology, but Mr. Faraci suggested that that approach may not connect across media platforms.

“That’s not what people are looking for on the small screen,” he said, praising the series for connecting how faith applies to our lives.

“[Miles’] path to God is through loving other people,” Mr. Faraci said, including a sequence in which the podcaster saves a doctor on the subway.

Faith-based programming is not new to television. In the 1980s, “Highway to Heaven” — about a fallen angel working on earth to return to paradise — ran for five seasons with high ratings. “Touched by an Angel” aired until 2003 after nine years of documenting the challenges and successes of a small chorus of guardian angels. “Joan of Arcadia,” about a teenage girl God talks to directly, had a two-year run that ended in 2005.

CBS’s marketing team may have helped goose the early ratings figures of “God Friended Me.” The entertainment news website Deadline.com reported that the network gave a sneak peek of the show via a crush of platforms, including Twitter, Facebook Premieres, CBS All Access and CBS.com a month before its official network bow. Word-of-mouth remains potent, particularly in the social media age.

Jeffrey Totey of WriterOfPop.net said Christian audiences may sense whether a show flows from a person of faith’s input.

“It’s hard for a show to use biblically minded material if they’re not biblically minded people to begin with,” said Mr. Totey, whose website covers entertainment from a Christian perspective. “What made [‘Touched by an Angel’] so successful is that people who are real believers were writing the material and acting it out.”

“God Friended Me” co-showrunner Steven Lilien is a Christian.

Another challenge for the new CBS series is to avoid offending religious viewers while drawing a wide swath of viewers from all walks of life, Mr. Totey said.

Mr. Faraci also credits another show for paving the way for “God Friended Me.”

“’God Friended Me’ doesn’t work without ‘The Good Place’ as a backdrop,” Mr. Faraci said of the NBC comedy in which a quartet of wrongdoers strives to become better people in the afterlife.

“The Good Place” doesn’t adhere to a Christian interpretation of the afterlife, but Mr. Faraci said it’s “fundamentally about good and evil and what does that look like, what causes us to make those decisions.”

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