First episode impressions: ‘God Friended Me’ (TV review)

A year ago, I didn’t give a glowing review to ABC’s “Kevin (Probably) Saves the World,” but I did like it enough to keep watching. Even though I almost canceled it from my DVR a few times, I watched the whole season (which turned out to be the whole series). It wasn’t good, per se, but there was a warmth to the interactions between Kevin, Amy, Reese, Tyler, Kristin and Nate in that small Texas town that I now find myself missing.

I thought maybe CBS’ Sunday series “God Friended Me” (you can watch the pilot episode at CBS.com or at 8:30 p.m. Eastern Sept. 30, then it switches to its regular timeslot at 8 p.m. Oct. 7) would fill the void of a happy show on my schedule in this age of serious dramas. After watching the slick pilot episode, I long for the messiness of “Kevin.”

As is clear from the trailer – which is just a tighter version of the full episode, as is common for TV trailers nowadays – Miles (Brandon Micheal Hall) helps people, urged on by Facebook friend suggestions from God. He saves the life of a suicidal doctor, John Dove (Christopher Redman), who then is on hand when Miles’ new friend Cara (Violett Beane, who looks like Lisa Sheridan from “FreakyLinks”) is struck by a car and needs resuscitation.

Miles harasses Cara, an online magazine reporter, about the Facebook request – before he realizes it’s not a joke, let alone one that comes from her – and Cara pursues his bizarre situation as a story idea. Cara sees a photo on Miles’ computer and – yada, yada, yada – reconnects with her estranged mom.

“Kevin (Probably) Saves the World” was a hot mess of plotting, but at least it wasn’t simplistic. I get a sense that “GFM” will follow a clear, straightforward formula every week: Miles gets the friend suggestion from God, he finds the person, awkwardly explains that God sent him, then helps them, then feels good.

I have no problem with the feel-good aspect, and it’s interesting that co-creators Steven Lilien and Bryan Wynbrandt come over from the dark and cynical (albeit fun) “Gotham”; maybe “GFM” is a conscious deep breath after getting away from that show. But if “GFM” does indeed follow a formula every week, my boredom will outweigh the good vibes.

Another blow against the pilot episode is the time it spends on the conflict between Miles’ atheism and the devout beliefs of his dad, Arthur (Joe Morton), who is marking 25 years behind the pulpit. It’s good that they are on the road to reconciliation in the final scene, playing chess in a New York park, but for a father and son to be estranged over religious beliefs seems so shallow to begin with.

Don’t get me wrong: Genuine debates, citing incidents from history, about the existence of God, could make for compelling drama. But “GFM” is not truly interested in the debate; it requires it for window dressing. Other elements in the pilot also seem cursory or lazy, like how John is suicidal one moment and happy to be saved the next, or the fact that Cara is a glowing picture of health in her hospital bed despite having a collapsed lung.

But “GFM” gets bonus points for its with-the-times portrayal of professions. Miles, a credit-card customer assistant by day, hosts an atheism podcast, which he is hoping to sell to Sirius satellite radio. Cara is a reporter, but there are no print products in sight; her editor pushes her to write another feature that will get enough clicks to top the big board at the office. (The newspaper where I work likewise has a TV screen showing what stories are getting the most web traffic.) Continuing the modern trend, Miles’ coworker and friend Rakesh (Suraj Sharma) is skilled in computer coding.

“GFM’s” presentation is crisp and modern, too. The post-production team integrates Miles’ cellphone and computer screens into the flow of the action. Rather than showing us the physical screen as the character sees it, the screen pops up in our TV frame in a place where we can read it without compromising the scene’s flow or framing.

But good production values don’t on their own make for a must-see series. The conflict has been solved in the first episode: Having seen that it’s not a joke, Miles is open to following God’s (or “God’s,” but it doesn’t really matter) instructions and helping people. Future episodes might not go so smoothly, but I suspect “GFM” will always spring back to this same place. The show is all heart, but doesn’t offer enough for the brain to earn a DVR slot.

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