Comedy writer Simon Rich has always been able to find the perfect balance of absurd humor and surprisingly honest insights about life and love. For example, in his short story “Sell Out” — which would later be adapted into the Seth Rogen-starring An American Pickle — Rich could turn a story about a man who accidentally gets stuck in a pickle-brining machine for a century into a moving story about generational gaps, living up to our past, and even Internet foodie culture. His collection of achingly accurate essays about relationships, entitled “The Last Girlfriend on Earth,” became the lovely FX series Man Seeking Woman, while his second novel, “What in God’s Name” became the basis for the first season of TBS’ Miracle Workers, with the second, Miracle Workers: Dark Ages, based on another essay of Rich’s brilliant wit and wonderfully expressed ideas.
The changing setting for each season of Miracle Workers almost felt like the series becoming an anthology of Rich’s writing. However, what happens when a show that is so distinctly the viewpoint of its creator has that creator leave the project? Can the show maintain its signature sense of humor once the source of that humor is gone? Miracle Workers: Oregon Trail, the show’s third season, is the first without Rich as showrunner, and at least in the latest iteration’s first episode, “Hittin’ the Trail,” it certainly seems as though Miracle Workers is trying to find its own voice without Rich and struggling to do so.
Miracle Workers: Oregon Trail begins with a group of settlers in the 1840s struggling to survive on meager crops and cholera quickly wiping out their numbers. Father Ezekiel Brown (Daniel Radcliffe) decides that they should pack up and move to Oregon — a land of new opportunities — yet the group doesn’t have anyone to guide them. Immediately after praying for help, Father Brown is introduced to Jim Nobody (Steve Buscemi), a mysterious man who agrees to take the group to Oregon. Soon after embarking, the group discovers that Jim is actually Benny the Teen, a notorious killer and thief. Father Brown has to trust Benny if he wants to get himself and his wagon train to this new promised land.
Taking the place of Rich as showrunner and writer for the new season’s debut episode is Dan Mirk and Robert Padnick, both of whom also worked on Man Seeking Woman, as well as past seasons of Miracle Workers. Granted, “Hittin’ the Trail” has a lot of ground to cover, introducing these new characters and scenario, as well as present an actual episode’s story within under 20 minutes, but this episode does so without the wit that has become a signature of Rich’s shows. For example, even though Dark Ages was set in a period that had already received its share of stories and parodies, Miracle Workers’ sense of humor and ability to find new angles on this type of story made the show’s take feel refreshing and new. At least in this first episode, Miracle Workers: Oregon Trail is more like a tried-and-true Western story, with slight nods to the show’s self-awareness that aren’t nearly as funny as the show thinks they are.
“Hittin’ the Trail” works best for Buscemi, who is able to play the part of badass with silliness that leans into the standard Western tropes. As was seen in the first season of Miracle Workers, this show works best when it’s Buscemi and Radcliffe playing off each other, as both stars are completely game for whatever plot is thrown at them. “Hittin’ the Trail” is understandably setting up where this season will go, but other returning cast members end up with disappointing stories in this first episode. Karan Soni is solid as an unnamed Gunslinger who shows up near the end of the episode and is clearly setting up a larger arc, but Jon Bass and Geraldine Viswanathan as Todd and Prudence Aberdeen end up being an unfortunate example of the lack of cleverness within this season’s introduction.
Todd Aberdeen is a needy and posh man who relies on his wife Prudence for his every whim. Bass and Viswanathan are also always great each season, but Mirk and Padnick’s writing doesn’t do their talent any justice. Bass is relegated to making fart jokes that escalate throughout the episode, while Miracle Workers is once again setting up a possible love story between Viswanathan and Radcliffe’s characters.
Oregon Trail goes back to a similar outline as the first season, which had a very specific goal in place for these characters, as opposed to the sort of free-flowing narrative of Dark Ages. At the very least, this gives this story a focused direction to head in, rather than feeling like a collection of bits. Hopefully, having a clear-cut direction for this season will be a benefit going forward.
Again, “Hittin’ the Trail” has a lot on its plate in terms of setting up Oregon Trail, but even compared to previous season debuts, Oregon Trail doesn’t have the same sharp playfulness or solid joke density. While other seasons at least had a short story to branch out from, Oregon Trail has new showrunners Mirk and Padnick making up their own concept and direction without the assistance of the show’s primary voice, and the difference is noticeable. Oregon Trail is the beginning of a new direction for Miracle Workers without the show’s creator, and based on this initial episode, it’s hard to imagine this season will be able to rise to the level of what this show has done in the past.
Miracle Workers: Oregon Trail premieres Tuesday, July 13 at 10:30 PM ET on TBS.
They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you…
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