There’s a generally accepted idea that while films are all about the story, television shows live and die by their characters. Audiences tune in week after week because they’re emotionally invested in the figures they see on screen, watching them learn and grow throughout a show’s run. So what “Miracle Workers: Dark Ages” does in its second season is undoubtedly a gamble; they zig where most shows would have zagged. Rather than continue the narrative from the first season, they decide to ask the audience to buy into its characters when they’re entirely different people.
Whereas the first season of “Miracle Workers” centered on a group of angels desperately trying to stop a seriously bummed out God (Steve Buscemi) from destroying Earth, the second season sheds every inch of that narrative. Instead, it features the same cast of actors, this time making up a group of villagers in the Middle Ages. And while it requires a brief adjustment period, it works well because they find ways to make these new characters familiar enough to evoke the general vibe of their performances from the first season. Crucially, their personalities are incredibly similar, even if their circumstances are not.
Geraldine Viswanathan‘s Alexandra “Al” Shitshoveler is still an ambitious, overachieving do-gooder, even as she strains against the intellectual limitations of the time period. Karan Soni‘s Lord Vexler is still a long-suffering executive assistant of sorts, surrounded by incompetence wherever he looks. And Daniel Radcliffe, here playing Prince Chauncley, is still a good-natured idiot.
But other than the residual goodwill for these characters every come to like; there are no links to the first season. And for the most part, “Miracle Workers: Dark Ages” is reliant on the charm of watching familiar characters in these new roles. Because we already know them, there’s less time at the front end that needs to be devoted to exposition and world-building.
But while the show will be likable enough for audiences who have already become attached to the performers involved, it’s unlikely to win over new viewers. One of the greatest strengths of the first season was its tightly constructed, cohesive narrative that perpetually drove the action forward. “Miracle Workers: Dark Ages” is pleasant, but it lacks a coherent story arc that binds all of the episodes together.
Instead, it tends to flounder, relying on obvious jokes about the barbarism and backward thinking of the medieval period. They occasionally hit the mark, but are frequently uninspired. Some of the freshest moments come when new characters are introduced: Jon Daly as a doctor who is clearly just making things up as he goes along, Peter Serafinowicz as the king, bloodthirsty and perpetually disappointed in his irrepressibly pleasant son, and Kevin Dunn as Al’s button-pushing, conservative uncle. But they’re few and far between.
It’s a shame that there isn’t better material in “Miracle Workers: Dark Ages,” because the actors genuinely deserve it. They’re entirely committed to their roles and bring so much charm to the proceedings that they’re sometimes even able to convince you that the show is better than it is. But as it stands, this season doesn’t do enough to make a case for itself as a unique entity, as an anthology should — it relies solely on the audience’s investment in last season’s characters, without bringing anything new to the table.
“Miracle Workers: Dark Ages” premieres on TBS on Tuesday, Jan. 28. The first five episodes were screened for review.