‘God Friended Me’: Our Screening Verdict Is in on the New CBS Faith Drama

The verdict is in on God Friended Me, premiering Sunday, Sept. 30 on CBS. Was it thumbs up or down?

On Monday, Sept. 24, invited guests (including our Head of Production, Father David Guffey, C.S.C.) came to a screening of the pilot for the latest offering from uber-producer Greg Berlanti at the Family Theater Productions offices in Hollywood.

UPDATE: God Friended Me premiered to solid ratings, with a 1.4 rating, a 5 share, which translates in English to 10.45 million viewers.

The one-hour comedy/drama, created by “Alcatraz” co-creators Steven Lilien and Bryan Wynbrandt, stars Brandon Micheal Hall as Miles Finer, a Millennial who, despite being the son of a reverend (Joe Morton), hosts an atheist podcast. One day, he gets a Facebook friend request from “God.” He tries to ignore it, but a cascade of strangeness results — from a literal burning bush to electronics mayhem to more friend requests that lead to incredible coincidences — which, if not exactly torpedoing Miles’ lack of belief, begins to open him up to questions.

The cast also includes Violett Beane as Cara Bloom, a reporter the “God account” connects with Miles; Suraj Sharma as Rakesh, Miles’s day-job co-worker and secret hacker (his faith and ethnicity aren’t specified in the pilot, but he appears to come from a traditional South Asian family); and Javicia Leslie as Ali, Miles’ still-believing sister.

After viewing the pilot, everyone filled out a questionnaire. Of the 25 responses, the bulk were from Catholics, but there was also a Jewish attendee (and a Jewish convert to Catholicism). Many, if not most, of the group either work in the entertainment industry (including a handful of FTP staff) or are connected to it. Ages ranged from 20s to 50+; roughly split between men and women.

The questionnaire asked “Are you a religious believer?”, with the choices being “Yes,” “No” and “Still Thinking About It.” Of those who answered, a couple folks circled the last one, but no one said “No.”

So, in general, this was a faith-centric audience that historically has been very skeptical and mistrusting of any mainstream-entertainment treatment of religion, but a subset of that group that is familiar with how TV is made.

To begin with, from my vantage point in the back of the theater, I saw people paying close attention to the screen, not talking between themselves or on their phones. They laughed frequently, and there was applause at the end.

During the reception afterward (with themed name tags and snacks), there was much discussing of the pilot, and people applied themselves with care to answering the questions — with overwhelmingly positive results.

Here are some samples (questions in bold) …

What what your overall impression of the pilot?

(Several folks did note that they thought it was a bit slow and dragged in places.)

“It was warmhearted; opens the door for faith discussions…” “Everything was a little too neat and clean. “I liked the characters, especially the supporting cast. The lead was very good as well.” “Laid the groundwork efficiently and strongly.” “Lots of potential.” “Very well-done, modern approach. Grounded.” “Sweet. Very likable characters.” “Great storyline, thought-provoking and most important, family-friendly.” “Touching, emotional, but in a good way.” “Why didn’t he just block [God]”? “Well-done, surprisingly clever.” “It’s an expansion of the question, ‘Is it odd, or is it God?'”

What did you think of its treatment of faith?

“Pilot made it seem as if he is revolting against what he was brought up with.” “I appreciate how there were people with different perspectives on religion/faith.” “Good. Reminds me of my conversion.” “Fun but serious.”  “Realistic.” “Very non-committed — not subscribing to a specific morality in faith or lifestyle.” “It reminded me of a Christian rock song.” “There’s nothing like it on TV.” “As a person of faith, I liked it … I do wonder how a secular audience will receive it.” “I liked how God works in mysterious ways.” “God sneaks up on you when you least expect it.” “Handled with openness and sincerity.” “Gentle in its approach.” “Not too cloying. Believable.”

What was your favorite element?

“The supernatural element.” “How everything was connected” (Two folks referenced this.) “There were some very subtle religious elements throughout.” “Casting.” “The best friend and the networking element.” “The way Miles’ relationship with his father was dealt with.” (A few people referenced the father-son thing.) “The New Jersey reference.” (At one point, Miles thinks he’s found the “God account,” in New Jersey.) “People were doing real things — like hooking up.” “He asked for a burning bush, and God gave him one. He still didn’t believe.” “The possibility of fate.” “Nice to see something that approached faith in a positive light.” “Diverse characters and having forgiveness.”

What did you like the least?

(Not everybody answered this one.)

“How every storyline is neatly wrapped up.” “That we only screened one episode!” “Some of the dialogue felt a bit on the nose, a bit too scripted.” (A few people had this comment.) “Maybe not showing a lot of Catholic religion, but it’s only the first episode.” “The performances felt a bit stilted.” (Again, more than one person noted this.) “The hook-up (but I guess that’s realistic).” “Too many crying scenes back-to-back.” “Nothing, really.” “There was potential for it to all be a cyber-joke.”

Some final questions:

At the end, I asked for a star rating, from one to 5. For those who answered, there was one 3; two 3.5s; nine 4s; five 4.5s; and five 5s.

There were two questions that everyone answered. Almost all of the attendees would recommend God Friended Me to folks of faith (with one Undecided); there were two Nos and two Undecideds for recommending it to atheist/agnostic folks. As for watching more episodes, again overwhelmingly Yes, with three Undecideds.

Based on this, CBS appears to have a good chance of at least getting a look from the faith audience — whether it can keep them is yet to be determined.

God Friended Me hits the airwaves on Sunday, Sept. 30, at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT. (the whole night is later because of an NFL doubleheader); as of Oct. 7, the show moves into its regular 8 p.m. ET/PT timeslot.

Images: CBS/Kate O’Hare for Family Theater Productions

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