The creator and showrunner talks about adapting another piece of his own work to continue one of the only comedy limited series on television.
When I found out Miracle Workers was coming back, I admit that I was a bit worried. The first season, which stars Daniel Radcliffe, Steve Buscemi, and Geraldine Vismanathan, is just a gem of a show, and I wasn’t sure how TBS would expand upon Simon Rich’s perfect nugget of a series. Much to my delight, Miracle Workers is completely different this year, and it’s hilarious in a completely different way.
For both seasons of the show so far, Rich has adapted his own work. What In God’s Name was the inspiration for the first season, but Miracle Workers: Dark Ages takes us to the most miserable time in existence. The entire cast has returned, and they are all playing different characters. Rich even humored me and my devotion to the underrated comedy talents of Daniel Radcliffe, who is a real standout this year.
Miracle Workers: Dark Ages is such a successful sophomore entry that I’m surprised that more comedic limited series haven’t popped up. With Rich’s intelligent writing to jump off from, the show is already superior to that of other comedic entries this season, and we’ve already come to love seeing these actors in such loose, silly situations. Bring on season three!
Awards Daily: When did you realize that you wanted to do a season two? I was very surprised that it was coming back, and I wasn’t sure if it’d return with the same characters or extend the same story?
Simon Rich: It was sort of a weird process. What happened was TBS wanted us to adapt my novel, What In God’s Name. as a show and Daniel Radcliffe was on board to play Craig. When I went in to talk to them, I told them the truth that I didn’t think it had the legs to be a long running show.
AD: Yeah, I was wondering how that was going to go.
SR: The novel is very short—it’s barely 200 pages. The story is pretty streamlines and the longer you make a story like that, the lower the stakes get. If the end of the word is hanging over your head for 30 or 40 episodes, it becomes less pressing, you know?
AD: That’s true.
SR: I told them that not only do I think that it won’t last multiple seasons, I don’t think there’s enough for a full season. It has to be a short, almost BBC-style miniseries, and they asked if there would be a way for there to be other seasons and I told them we could if it was an anthology series. Change it up every year and base it on other work of mine. I expected them to say no, but they told us to go for it. I was shocked. It’s thrilling.
AD: We’ve actually talked about that on our site. When Big Little Lies was such a massive hit, they could’ve kept the same actors around and just done a Liane Moriarty anthology series.
SR: You’re right. They definitely could’ve.
AD: Miracle Workers is one of very few comedic limited series on television.
SR: I was surprised by how novel it was too. I remember looking it up and not having a lot of examples on television. There are a lot of examples in the feature world. Some of the inspirations are directors like Mel Brooks, the Coen Brothers, Monty Python and Buter Keaton. These are directors who keep the same people from project to project and keep the same tone and often grapple with the same things. But they change genres drastically from year to year, and I thought that was really inspiring. I’m not a director, I’m a TV showrunner, so I thought I could try that.
AD: Dark Ages really gave me a Monty Python feel. This one feels more like a slice of life. This time around has a more relaxed tone.
SR: Yes, it does.
AD: Were you specifically wanting that tone for the second season?
SR: How many episodes have you seen?
AD: I’ve seen the first 6.
SR: Okay. Well, I can tell you that it does become very serialized and it ends with life and death stakes. It does get to the same high-octane, plot driven place that the first season gets to, but we wanted there to be more character development this year. We thought the stakes, in the final episodes, would be higher if we got to really know the characters and their relationships. The purpose of the first 7 episodes make sure we are as invested in these characters as possible. So when we threaten their lives, people will hopefully care.
AD: The first season had 7 episodes and this one has 10. That had to give you so much more breathing room.
SR: It really did. It doesn’t happen until much later when we get to those life or death scenarios.
AD: You mentioned characters that you love, and I am a massive Daniel Radcliffe fan.
SR: Me too.
AD: I think he’s one of the more underrated actors that we have.
SR: I know.
AD: He’s so funny as Prince Chauncley, and I think it takes a really intelligent person to play someone that dim that well. I wasn’t expecting to care about his character as much as I did when it all started.
SR: He’s an incredible intelligent guy, and it was really fun to write him as a moron. He is always very involved with the writing process. He comes to the writer’s room, he sits in, and helps shape his character. He immediately jumped on board to play a spoiled moron. It was fun for us on set, because it’s so diametrically different than who he is as a person. Not to speak for him, I think he enjoyed playing an antagonist. He’s so rarely cast in that way.
AD: You’re right.
SR: And he nailed it. He’s a very versatile actor, so hopefully people will have seen his great independent film work. His work on Broadway and in the West End is very wide-ranging and impressive. He’s a guy who can play smart or dumb. He’s an excellent collaborator. He’s a producer, and it’s not just an honorary title. He’s involved in casting, he weighs on what directors to hire, and he’s a real creative part of the show. He’s just awesome, but the whole cast is great. We all know brilliant [Steve] Buscemi is, but the whole cast is super funny and versatile.
AD: And they all come from different places.
AD: Geraldine Viswanathan is so up-and-coming and Lolly [Adefope] has been everywhere. The whole cast just melds so well together.
SR: And we make sure that people essentially have different scene partners. In the first season, Karan [Soni] didn’t have many scenes with Dan and Geraldine didn’t have very many scenes with Lolly, so we formulated the second season so the actors could play off each other in different ways the second time out.
AD: There is a sweetness to the humor in this show.
SR: Thank you!
AD: A lot of comedy can be cynical or mean-spirited.
SR: It can.
AD: Can you talk about maintaining that jolly lightness throughout the season?
SR: Well, thank you very much for sharing that. I really appreciate that. Truly. There’s a pervading sense of doom right now in the culture. It’s a very negative time. People, in general, are very defeatist and gloomy about the state of the world. With Miracle Workers, we want to start off by meeting the viewer where they live. We start each show in a place of abject misery and nihilism. In the first season, it’s literally a broken heaven where God want to blow up Earth and we start in the Dark Ages…the worst time in human history. Can we start from this pessimistic place and take the characters on a journey that’s redemptive enough that, by the end of each episode and the end of the season, somehow hope and joy are restored.
SR: That’s our goal. Can we start from darkness and get to light? It’s a fun challenge. If people want to stay depressed, there’s a lot of other options out there.
AD: That’s true. Even that line that’s in the few moments of the first episode where Geraldine’s character says, ‘Do you ever feel like we’re living through a particularly bad moment in history?’ is so relevant.
SR: Yeah, that’s on the first page of the first episode so people can feel how grounded in reality is. We start in that zone and, hopefully, we gradually shift perspective.
AD: The simplicity is really refreshing. The first season is about trying to get these two people to fall in love. There’ aren’t any frills.
SR: Nope. No frills.
AD: This new season is based on a short story of your own, ‘Revolution,’ and the season one was based on a novel. Can we expect the third to be adapted from your own work as well? Are you looking at your work with a different eye now?
SR: I do but I try not to write my fiction with adaptation in mind. Just because I want the short stories and the novels to work as well as they can on their own and certain story moves and stylistic choices for TV and film would be wrong for the printed page. And vice versa. Right now, I’m working on a short story for my next collection, and it’s tempting to be like, ‘Maybe if I made this character older, it could be played by a young leading man.’ I tell myself to keep writing. Don’t think about that until down the line. It’s a weird process, at least in LA, I’ve done 5 seasons of television, and it’s all been based on my fiction. That really is my process. Fiction first and then adapt it sometime down the line. Sometimes it’s a year later or 10 years later. It’s kind of a way to guarantee that everything that I do is as untimely and irrelevant as possible.
AD: (Laughs) You have to service the story.
SR: They’re so different, yeah. When I have an idea that I’m excited about, I just want to write about it right away. I don’t want to wait for somebody to agree to star in it or direct it. I don’t want to wait to pitch it. I want to sit down immediately and start writing it. That’s the great thing about fiction. Anybody can do it. Nobody can tell you no.
Miracle Workers: Dark Ages debuts on TBS on January 28.