Faith-based show proves a rat­ings-win­ner

‘God Friended Me’ on CBS uses hu­mor to reach broad au­di­ence

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY CHRIS­TIAN TOTO

A new net­work tele­vi­sion show has set its sights on the same faith-based au­di­ence that has made hits of movies such as “Heaven Is for Real,” “God’s Not Dead” and “Mir­a­cles from Heaven.”

The CBS com­edy-drama “God Friended Me” de­buted Sept. 30 with big rat­ings, at­tract­ing 10.4 mil­lion view­ers who could have opted to watch an NFL game.

Air­ing at 8 p.m. ET on Sun­days, the hour­long show fo­cuses on Miles Finer (Bran­don Micheal Hall), a pod­caster who gets a so­cial me­dia friend re­quest from the Lord Almighty. Though an out­spo­ken athe­ist, Miles can’t ig­nore the re­quest or deny the spir­i­tual con­nec­tions that sud­denly flood his life. It might even bring him closer to his father (Joe Mor­ton), a pas­tor whose faith hasn’t been passed down to his adult son … yet.

Brian Mitchell, a top ex­ec­u­tive of The WTA Group, which over­sees faith-based mar­ket­ing plans, said he ap­proached the show’s first episode with trep­i­da­tion.

“Hu­mor is tough when it comes to the real, straight down the mid­dle Chris­tian or faith au­di­ence. … Very few peo­ple have had suc­cess with it,” said Mr. Mitchell, whose com­pany helped pro­mote the in­de­pen­dent faith-based hit movie “War Room.” The new show has won him over. “It’s very in­clu­sive of a wider au­di­ence,” Mr. Mitchell said.

That first episode teased a dra­matic arc with vast po­ten­tial, one that could fuel a num­ber of sea­sons. Miles hes­i­tantly goes along with the friend re­quest, think­ing it an elab­o­rate hoax he will un­ravel. But as he and on­line journalist Cara Bloom (Vi­o­lett Beane) ac­cept and in­ves­ti­gate God’s friend sug­ges­tions, they soon find them­selves help­ing other peo­ple in dis­tress.

“I love the idea that his father is a min­is­ter,” Mr. Mitchell said. “Preach­ers’ kids, or PKs as we call them, they get so cal­lous. That [el­e­ment] was re­ally re­al­is­tic.”

“God Friended Me” is CBS’s sec­ond at­tempt at prime-time, faith-based pro­gram­ming this year. In Fe­bru­ary, it launched “Liv­ing Bi­b­li­cally,” a half-hour com­edy based on the pop­u­lar book “The Year of Liv­ing Bi­b­li­cally.” The show — about a film critic/ex­pec­tant father who de­cides to live his life ac­cord­ing to the Bi­ble af­ter the death of a friend — de­buted with 5 mil­lion view­ers but sank to 3.5 mil­lion. It was can­celed af­ter eight episodes.

Matthew Faraci, ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer on the up­com­ing TV series “The Cho­sen,” said a show like “God Friended Me” rep­re­sents a 21st-cen­tury ap­proach to spir­i­tual sto­ry­telling.

“We are long-over­due for some new think­ing in how we com­mu­ni­cate faith to a new gen­er­a­tion,” said Mr. Faraci, pres­i­dent of In­spire Buzz, a mar­ket­ing firm that pro­motes fam­ily-friendly con­tent. “The rea­son ‘God Friended Me’ is work­ing is that it’s do­ing that, not pulling from the old play­book.”

The show’s de­pic­tion of Miles’ con­flicted thoughts on faith are in­stantly re­lat­able, he said.

“They’re hav­ing the con­ver­sa­tion in the show that young peo­ple are al­ready hav­ing. … A lot of faith con­tent is speak­ing to an older gen­er­a­tion,” Mr. Faraci said. The new show is “thought-pro­vok­ing, fresh and dif­fer­ent. It asks re­ally good ques­tions that peo­ple from the faith com­mu­nity ap­pre­ci­ate and peo­ple who don’t come from a faith back­ground ap­pre­ci­ate, too.”

Faith-based films such as “War Room” and “God’s Not Dead” de­liv­ered Chris­tian sto­ry­telling with­out apol­ogy, but Mr. Faraci sug­gested that that ap­proach may not con­nect across me­dia plat­forms.

“That’s not what peo­ple are look­ing for on the small screen,” he said, prais­ing the series for con­nect­ing how faith ap­plies to our lives.

“[Miles’] path to God is through lov­ing other peo­ple,” Mr. Faraci said, in­clud­ing a se­quence in which the pod­caster saves a doc­tor on the sub­way.

Faith-based pro­gram­ming is not new to tele­vi­sion. In the 1980s, “High­way to Heaven” — about a fallen an­gel work­ing on earth to re­turn to par­adise — ran for five sea­sons with high rat­ings. “Touched by an An­gel” aired un­til 2003 af­ter nine years of doc­u­ment­ing the chal­lenges and suc­cesses of a small cho­rus of guardian an­gels. “Joan of Ar­ca­dia,” about a teenage girl God talks to di­rectly, had a two-year run that ended in 2005.

CBS’s mar­ket­ing team may have helped goose the early rat­ings fig­ures of “God Friended Me.” The en­ter­tain­ment news web­site Dead­ re­ported that the net­work gave a sneak peek of the show via a crush of plat­forms, in­clud­ing Twit­ter, Face­book Pre­mieres, CBS All Ac­cess and a month be­fore its of­fi­cial net­work bow. Word-of-mouth re­mains potent, par­tic­u­larly in the so­cial me­dia age.

Jef­frey Totey of said Chris­tian au­di­ences may sense whether a show flows from a per­son of faith’s in­put.

“It’s hard for a show to use bi­b­li­cally minded ma­te­rial if they’re not bi­b­li­cally minded peo­ple to be­gin with,” said Mr. Totey, whose web­site cov­ers en­ter­tain­ment from a Chris­tian per­spec­tive. “What made [‘Touched by an An­gel’] so suc­cess­ful is that peo­ple who are real be­liev­ers were writ­ing the ma­te­rial and act­ing it out.”

“God Friended Me” co-showrun­ner Steven Lilien is a Chris­tian.

An­other chal­lenge for the new CBS series is to avoid of­fend­ing re­li­gious view­ers while draw­ing a wide swath of view­ers from all walks of life, Mr. Totey said.

Mr. Faraci also cred­its an­other show for paving the way for “God Friended Me.”

“’God Friended Me’ doesn’t work with­out ‘The Good Place’ as a back­drop,” Mr. Faraci said of the NBC com­edy in which a quar­tet of wrong­do­ers strives to be­come bet­ter peo­ple in the af­ter­life.

“The Good Place” doesn’t ad­here to a Chris­tian in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the af­ter­life, but Mr. Faraci said it’s “fun­da­men­tally about good and evil and what does that look like, what causes us to make those de­ci­sions.”

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