Is Living Biblically A Blessing on Modern Television?
- Jeffrey Huston Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2018 26 Feb
I don’t know if Living Biblically is an answer to prayer, but it’s far from an abomination. Just the opposite, in fact. The heart of this new CBS sitcom is in the right place, it threads a very difficult needle with charm, and it believes that the Bible will make you a better person, not a weirder one.
For a prime time TV show, that’s a small miracle in itself.
Based on the popular memoir “The Year of Living Biblically” by A.J. Jacobs, in which the author documented his efforts to live strictly by the Bible’s rules, laws, and edicts for an entire year (both Old Testament and New), Living Biblically uses Jacobs’ journey as an inspiration point for Chip Curry (Jay R. Ferguson, Mad Men), an agnostic New York City film critic in need of a soul cleanse.
The death of a close friend has left Chip in a funk. He’s not searching for answers to his existential crisis but rather purpose and clarity. When a literal beam of light is cast over a Bible on a store shelf, Chip sees it as a sign to give the Good Book an honest try – and a literal one.
An amiable guy with sincere motives, Chip’s deep dive into piety is a personal, self-reflective journey, not a dogmatic or judgmental one. His winsome posture is a key to the show’s success, a foundational disposition through which everything else is filtered – including how others respond. He doesn’t preach, but his example does.
To help him navigate this new territory, as he confronts Scriptural commands that range from stoning adulterers to not wearing clothes with mixed fabrics, there’s Chip’s “God Squad”: Father Gene, a Roman Catholic priest (Ian Gomez, Cougar Town), and Rabbi Gil, a good friend of Father Gene’s from a local Jewish synagogue (David Krumholtz, The Good Wife).
The pair doesn’t get into exegetical minutia. They impart the intent behind the laws, how Chip can apply that wisdom in a modern day context, and they do so in with blithe, witty spirits. Jay R. Ferguson is a winning lead, but it’s Gomez and Krumholtz that are the series’ secret weapons. The scenes between these three will be what keep viewers coming back.
Not that the other two social spheres are lacking. At home, Chip’s wife Leslie (Lindsey Kraft, Grace and Frankie) is newly pregnant. She’s also an atheist. Initially skeptical about Chip’s newfound religious devotion, especially on the cusp of becoming parents, Leslie grows to appreciate her husband’s commitment, even as his new way of living can cramp the lifestyle they’re used to. She may not see the need for God, but she sees the positive change it’s making in her husband, and she embraces that. In the midst of conflict or concern, it’s refreshing to see a TV couple instinctively extend grace.
The workplace is the show’s least interesting aspect so far, but it likely holds the most potential. Chip gets little pushback from his co-workers, receiving more fascinated bemusement than tension or mockery. But this is a sitcom first and foremost, and the CBS mold is to keep things light and breezy, so the reactions that arise from Chip’s life change inevitably end up being more silly and quirky than confrontational.
This environment is also what keeps Living Biblically from being a safe family show. From a lesbian boss to a philandering co-worker to all-around secular lifestyles (casual profanity, sexual humor, and otherwise), occasional content is what puts this series out of the broadcast family hour. Still, this environment works as an effective contrast for Chip’s commitment to Biblical standards. If anything, it’s the non-believers that end up becoming the butt of jokes more than Chip’s old-fashioned morality.
This is a multi-camera sitcom taped in front of a live audience, not single camera. That format choice is vital. Crowd responses and laugh tracks help verify for viewers that the show’s humor is done in a spirit of respect, even affection, for Biblical fidelity, not snide ridicule. Comedy rises from the culture clash that comes from traditions thousands of years old being lived out in the 21st Century, but Christianity is not a punchline. Indeed, in one episode, a quasi-militant atheist (Chip’s mother-in-law!) is the condescending prig, not the Bible follower.
More important still, the series is not divisive. Staying free entirely of politics (at least in the first three episodes made available for preview), Living Biblically looks to bring people together through religious openness, not split them apart.
Produced by the production company of actor Johnny Galecki (Leonard on The Big Bang Theory), this show’s theological ambitions are low. Its goal is to make Scripture accessible, not challenging. That’s okay, and probably even wise. It’s meant to be prime time comfort food but with a very interesting hook. That mix will get people talking, but in a way that cools our culture wars rather than enflaming them. And through Chip, Living Biblically offers a great example for all believers: take your faith seriously, but not yourself.
Living Biblically premieres on CBS Monday, February 26, at 9:30 p.m. EST / 8:30 p.m. CST.
Jeff Huston is a writer/director/editor for Steelehouse Productions, a film & video production company in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He also publishes a movie blog that can be found at icantunseethatmovie.com, and is a member of the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle. In 2015, his short film Pink Shorts was a finalist in HBO's Project Greenlight competition, and was one of six winners in that show's online "Greenie Awards."