‘Living Biblically’ — in front of a live studio audience

‘Living Biblically’ — in front of a live studio audience March 8, 2018
All photos courtesy CBS.

The new CBS sitcom “Living Biblically” (Mondays, 9:30 p.m.) ponders how hard it is to live by the Book. The show’s protagonist, Chip (Jay R. Ferguson), is trying to follow the Bible to the letter. That means praying without ceasing, throwing out false idols, not wearing blended fibers and possibly stoning adulterers. It’s Leviticus with a laugh track.

Based on A.J. Jacobs’ best-selling book, in which he attempted to follow all of the regulations and guidelines that he could find in the Bible for a year, the show focuses on Chip, a film critic who goes on a quest of self-improvement after his best friend unexpectedly dies and his wife announces that she’s pregnant. When a Bible accidentally ends up in his cart at the bookstore, he takes that as a sign. He assembles a “God Squad” composed of a priest (Ian Gomez) and a rabbi (David Krumholtz) and, much to the chagrin and bemusement of his agnostic wife (Lindsey Craft) and coworkers, sets out to live a strictly biblical lifestyle.

Sitcom sins and glimmers of hope

The pilot of “Living Biblically” is the version of this show I dreaded: A bland multicamera sitcom that thinks it’s hilarious to have Chip waltz into work in an all-white ensemble because he doesn’t want to invalidate the levitical prohibition on mixing fibers (Lev. 19:19) and finds small pleasure in throwing a small rock at the head of a philandering coworker. The broad humor in this first episode is just basically “can you believe the Bible says this? Isn’t that CRAZY?”

It doesn’t help that the thought-provoking idea behind “Living Biblically” is trapped in a dated, conventional sitcom. Executive producer Johnny Galecki is familiar with the form from both his days on “Roseanne” and most recently the smash hit “Big Bang Theory,” and co-creator Patrick Walsh has written for sitcoms both hilarious (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) and horrid (“2 Broke Girls”); he was also involved in the first season of HBO’s “Crashing,” a much more nuanced, insightful and funny look at faith struggles. Walsh and Galecki stick to the hackneyed formula, complete with dated pop culture references, a snarky and disapproving wife, and an annoying ensemble of coworkers including “The Practice’s” Camryn Manheim and “Roseanne’s” Sara Gilbert, both of whom try to bring personality to cliched roles. The humor comes from groan-worthy one-liners and catchphrases that are long past their sell-by date. It’s often a struggle to get through, even though the underlying premise is interesting.

That said, the pilot isn’t all bad. Gomez and Krumholtz are likable as the priest and rabbi, who listen bemused to Chip’s struggle at the local tavern (yes, the pilot includes a “priest and rabbi walk into a bar” joke). Ferguson’s a fine lead, charming while still convincing you that he probably has some atoning that needs to be done. And I like the dynamic of Chip’s wife being agnostic. It’s a clever inversion of what we normally see in sitcoms, where the wife is the believer trying to scold her slacker husband into going to church. By making Chip’s spouse not just a lapsed Catholic but a nonbeliever, it lends the show some conflict, and I’m curious to see what happens down the line.

And while the Bible-based humor is silly and broad in the early going, future episodes suggest that the show is willing to talk about issues of faith semi-seriously. I’ve seen three episodes, and I was impressed how the show moves from jokes about stoning adulterers to engaging with the difficulty of prayer in a modern world. Another episode finds Chip wrestling with false idols and recognizing the grasp his smartphone has on him (I can relate). It might not be wrestling with belief that we see done so well on “Crashing,” but the fact that a prime-time network comedy is willing to have a dialogue about issues of faith is admirable. The show takes faith seriously and respectfully, even if it has a bit of self-aware humor about the futility of Chip’s task.

There’s an amiability to “Living Biblically” that made the two subsequent episodes pleasant, if not necessarily good. Ferguson, Krumholtz and Gomez have strong chemistry, even if their jokes are never really funny. It’s enough to power through ham-fisted movie references and bad dad jokes. Manheim and Gilbert seem to be in another, goofier and worse show altogether, but they’re talented actors who the show will hopefully figure out how to use. Tony Rock (Chris’ brother) gets saddled with the best friend role, but gets some of the funnier lines and elevates a familiar trapped-in-an-elevator plot to something approaching amusing. “Living Biblically” isn’t good, but many comedies aren’t in the early going. But the concept is interesting and the cast likable enough that I’ll watch hoping that they find their groove.

Should I have faith?

As a sitcom, “Living Biblically” is flawed. As a show grappling with spiritual issues, it’s…well, it’s flawed. But it’s well-intentioned. I’m sure pedantic theologians will nitpick and poke holes in doctrinal inconsistencies. But really, would a sitcom about deep doctrine ever fly? Isn’t it enough that on prime time there’s a show willing to look a bit (and just a bit) beneath the surface and try to find humor — and maybe even wisdom —  in matters of the soul?

It remains to be seen whether “Living Biblically” will evolve beyond being a series of pat devotional musings, where the power of prayer is seen in a healed relative or ignoring false idols leads to stronger relationships. Right now, the show is just a step above “Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul” and content to treat the Bible as a self-help book, finding humor in applying theology to time-worn sitcom tropes. It might not be great art or good theology, but at its best it’s a better attempt than we’ve seen through much of television history.

I’m curious to see how the show moves into the New Testament, with a future episode titled “Love Thy Neighbor”, and think the idea behind “Show Hospitality” could be needed in this climate, if done right. I want to see what the show does when it comes against biblical topics that have to be dealt with sensitively or that could potentially be offensive; the upcoming “Submit to Thy Husband” could be a start, and in interviews the producers have stated that the Bible’s words on homosexuality could make for a provocative episode. There is material here ripe for exploring and mining stories from. And doing so with humor would probably make the conversation a bit easier, provided the show can rise above the tired sitcom gags and cliches.

But then again, there’s part of me that worries. Will the show continue to treat Chip’s faith as solely a personal thing, or will he we eventually see him become part of a church (the context for faith is always communal)? Will the show wrestle with belief or are we just going to watch Chip try to do what the Bible says externally instead of finding internal change? What of Jesus and grace, and the very fact that, contextually, the Old Testament laws that Chip is trying to keep are designed to be impossible, instead bringing to the forefront our inability to keep them and our need for salvation, redemption and holiness? We’re in such a golden age of television right now that I have to believe a show on Netflix, Amazon or HBO could eventually deal with such deep matters of the soul in an entertaining fashion; I don’t know that I have the same hope for a CBS sitcom with a laugh track.

But I’ll keep watching, for now. “Living Biblically” isn’t the best sitcom, nor is it the most in-depth exploration of faith. But it’s a likable diversion and a conversation worth having.

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