One of the first lines uttered in TBS’s Medieval comedy Miracle Workers: Dark Ages comes from young Alexandria Shitshoveler (yes, really) as she prepares to watch a public execution. After the executioner cheerfully cries “It’s time to kill a person!” Alexandria turns to her friend as asks “Do you ever feel like we’re living during a particularly bad period in history?”
That’s a question many modern viewers may bring with them into Miracle Workers: Dark Ages’ first episode. The show is set to premiere on January 28, six days into the Presidential impeachment hearings and who knows how many days after the latest terrifying climate change report. Alexandria’s query, however, is a helpful reminder that even though our era may not have the world “dark” in it (at least not until future historians get to it), we can always find a sympathetically pessimistic view point in the past.
“I mean, it’s a very blunt attempt to ground the show in a present day reality,” creator Simon Rich says. “We’re very upfront about it. It’s meant to be a metaphor for today. It’s no different than The Flintstones or The Jetsons.”
The first season of Miracle Workers premiered in early 2019 and was a big hit for TBS as the top new cable comedy of the season. Based on the short story “What in God’s Name” from Rich, the series told a self-contained tale of heaven as a business with Steve Buscemi as a disinterested God and Geraldine Viswanathan (who portrays Alexandria in Dark Ages) and Daniel Radcliffe as low-level bureaucrats trying to save the Earth from being rebooted into a Lazy Susan-themed restaurant.
With season 1 featuring a conclusive ending, Rich adapted the concept into an anthology series and got to work prepping a brand new season under a new subtitle. Though, search engine optimization being king, the show remains saddled with its now anachronistic Miracle Workers banner.
“If you can come up with a better title, I will give you a producer credit and take you out to dinner,” Rich says. “The reason why it’s called Miracle Workers is that it’s the most efficient way to tell audiences that it has the same cast. A better title would just be like the names of all of the actors: the Steve and Dan and Karan and Lolly Show, but that’s a lot of words.”
The Steve and Dan and Karan and Lolly Show would indeed be a mouthful but it would certainly hammer home the point that the people of Miracle Workers are what matters here. The main cast returns this new season all in new roles. Radcliffe goes from Craig Bog to the charmingly-named heir to the throne Prince Chauncley. Karan Soni returns as Chauncley’s helper Lord Chris Vexler. Lolly Adefope plays Maggie. Jon Bass moves from the role of Sam to that of Alexandria’s brother Mikey. Viswanathan plays the aforementioned Alexandria Shitshoveler. But of all the Miracle Workers’ cast members, no one has received a bigger demotion (at least on paper) than Buscemi, who takes off God’s heavenly crown to become Alexandria’s janitor father, Eddie Shitshoveler.
“We loved the idea of having Steve and Dan come from very different worlds,” Rich says. “Dan played a very low status character last year and Steve played very high status character. We thought maybe this year, we’ll flip it.”
Despite the downgrade in stature, Buscemi relishes the role of Eddie and the new level of humanity he brings to the proceedings.
“I just loved his attitude about his work, about life,” Buscemi says. “He’s not the brightest guy in the room but he does have an open mind.”
Buscemi also notes that Eddie’s relationship with his daughter, in which he wants her to focus on the tried and true family business rather than following her riskier dreams, reminds him of his relationship with his own father.
“When Simon told me about the character, I couldn’t help but think of my own dad, who was a sanitation worker and worked for the city for 30 years,” Buscemi says. “He was interested in what I did as an actor but wanted me to take whatever civil service tests came up when I was 18 because he was worried about my future. He wanted me to have a good civil service job. So to play a character who has kids, and wants the kids to come into his business I just thought: This is great. I know this guy.”
“It’s one of my favorite characters I’ve ever had a chance to write for,” Rich adds. “Because he is so durable and positive and no matter how objectively terrible his situation is, he always finds a way to stay upbeat…even though his life by any metric is a never-ending hell.”
Rich happily notes that Eddie Shitshoveler faces the prospect of death no fewer than six times throughout the show’s 10 episodes and each time does so with a smile. At one point Eddie even delivers an enthusiastic thumbs up while chiseling R.I.P. into his own gravestone.
Taking one of America’s most beloved character actors down to a lowly shit shoveler is just some of the fun you can have when operating in an anthology format. Anthologies have become increasingly popular on television as audiences’ attention becomes more hard to grasp and networks become amenable to the “less is more” philosophy.
“(Anthologies) are a lot of fun as writers too,” Rich says. “When you’re writing a short story or a novel, it can be any length that it wants to be. On TV you almost never have the capability. You have no idea how many episodes it’s going to run. It would be like starting a book and not knowing how many pages you’re going to be allowed to have. We’re very grateful to have this much creative freedom because it’s very rare.”
For Rich, running an anthology series also means more opportunities to adapt his short fiction into television, which he says is the only way he knows to operate in the medium Previously Rich brought his selection of short stories, The Last Girlfriend on Earth, to FXX as Man Seeking Woman. Miracle Workers: Dark Ages takes its inspiration from the short story “Revolution. For the actors, an anthology series means getting to stick together while working in a fresh context.
“It’s wonderful. To just come in and get to work with the same actors again and be a different character,” Buscemi says. “It’s kind of a dream come true. Towards the end of Boardwalk Empire I was sort of running out of inspiration. The character kept getting darker and I think God was in a similar space. I don’t know that I would want to keep playing him unless he like really changes but it didn’t seem like he was that capable of change.”
Even in a close-knit cast, there are plenty of roles for newcomers to inhabit. Miracle Workers: Dark Ages is given a wider canvas than its first go-around and has more room for guest stars. Tony Cavalero, Jessica Lowe, and Jack Mosedale recur as a trio of Alexandria’s peers who always seem to be up to something far cooler than Alexandria’s career as a shit shoveler. Their surnames? Carpenter, Baker, and of course: Pervert. Rich says that the rest of the season will see stints from comedic actors such as Jon Daly, Kerri Kenney, Kevin Dunn, Zeke Nicholson, Anna Drezen, and Greta Lee as the mysterious Princess Vicky.
Having the same core cast with new supporting players allows Rich and the writers to pay homage to the comedy giants before them who operated under similar repertory principles. Rich points to Mel Brooks, Buster Keaton, and Monty Python as creators who not only covered similar Medieval material but also did so with the advantage of working with many of the same people.
“These are filmmakers who change genre constantly and yet managed to remain thematically and tonally consistent,” Rich says.
If Miracle Workers: Dark Ages is to remain thematically tonally consistent with its first season, that means that this world of torture, poor hygiene, and ignorance could ultimately have something resembling a fairy tale ending. Or at least a better, more understanding relationship between its central father and daughter. Not bad for an honest day’s work shoveling shit.
Miracle Workers: Dark Ages premieres Tuesday, January 28 at 10:30 p.m. ET on TBS.