Bring up social media these days, and it’s an invitation for extreme reactions. On one side, some believe social media to be a blight on humanity and, on the other, the most tech-addicted of us spend every waking moment checking notifications and bathed in blue light. Social media is a complicated social minefield of guilt, stimulation, entertainment, and time wasting. So, just imagine all of that on top of God inserting himself directly into your life and asking you to "friend" him.
That’s exactly the scenario writers Steven Lilien and Bryan Wynbrandt came up with a few years ago, a story that morphed into the upcoming CBS dramedy God Friended Me, which premieres Sunday, Sept. 30.
Ahead of the series premiere, SYFY WIRE spoke with the co-creators/showrunners about this rather cheery premise with a twist. God Friended Me follows the story of Miles Finer (Brandon Micheal Hall), a young atheist living in New York City, who gets poked by God to "friend" him on a Facebook-style social media network. When he does so (under duress), it opens up a can of fate that connects him to an open-minded millennial reporter (Violett Beane) and his estranged family. Together, the duo is compelled by "God" to help others in need.
Is it for real? Is Miles being celestially catfished? We get some answers from the writers-that-be.
First off, you both wrote on Gotham where you were knee-deep in a very specific mythology that you had to write around. Was it freeing to craft this series with your own mythology?
Lilien: It was a clean slate. It was such a huge part of our childhood, living in that Batman world. With Gotham, we were always trying to find a familiar take on these characters.
Now, it’s about having an open book for these characters that we can shape... They can be however we want them to be. That was really exciting for us to get into a world and just have the freedom to take it in any direction.
Wynbrandt: And create a mythology that is unique and our own.
Was the show always centered around a millennial who had denied his faith?
Wynbrandt: The thing that we realized, more than anything, was we needed to find the right character to match the premise. It's like the perfect marriage. So, when we were talking about this show, and because we came up with it many years ago, we had talked about different main characters. It wasn't until our most recent conversations, that we started talking about Miles, the atheist. This made the whole show come together for us.
There's a conflict between him and his father [played by Joe Morton] and it just felt so rooted in everything that makes us human. The connection with our parents, and what identity we gain from them, and how we are born out of the experience of being raised by them. It's very much an analogy to God, or what people think of as God, in that we're all a reflection of Him, or Her, or whatever.
It just melded into this beautiful metaphor. So, we knew then that we had the right character and that was, to us, the real crystallization of it all.
Lilien: Yeah, and beyond that, when we were talking about expanding the premise and creating a world where we have these friend suggestions, it was a great way for us to have an engine for this show. But the most important thing was knowing that each person that came into their lives that they were helping, it could be somatically reflected upon themselves. And that was really exciting for us.
A lot of shows today tell dark stories, and God Friended Me feels like the antithesis of that trend. Would you call it an escapist show?
Wynbrandt: We think there is still good in the world. That's what this show wants to point out while not [taking place] in an [alternate] reality, where we're not living in a world of 2018. These characters are aware of the world that's around them. I think that contemporary backdrop helps this show feel like a show that we were excited to not just write, but to watch, versus other shows that are similar that always felt like they're kind of living in an alternate universe.
You’ve compared the show to Quantum Leap, which had Sam (Scott Bakula) making things right throughout history every week. Will Miles and his circle always make things right every week for their new "friend," or will there be other outcomes that play out over multiple episodes?
Lilien: For the most part, we are going to stay episodic and have a resolution. But there's an ongoing serial character journey that will have different endpoints and different resolutions and some that aren't resolved neatly. And yes, we do have an arc that we're designing right now for someone who arcs over a few episodes, where it isn't a happy ending necessarily that you think it would be.
We always talk about this idea of how can we uplift the audience at the end, but they all have different landing places and different tones. That was something Steven and I adored about [Quantum Leap]; it was like going to the comic book stand and you didn't know what issue you were going to get. You didn't know if it was going to be a comedic [episode of] Quantum Leap, or if it was going to be a real hard-hitting [episode of] Quantum Leap.
Our show has to thread a certain needle, but we do feel like some of our episodes have a more romantic/comedy bent. And some of our episodes have a more mystery bent, or a more emotional/weighty bent. I think we want to keep the "friend of the week" making the show feel unique. And that way, you'll never really know what you're gonna get.
How much did you guys sweat over your ultimate answer to the God account? And how important is that answer for the average viewer?
Wynbrandt: We know what the answer is but we’re gonna tell it organically within the show. We understand in a really good way how to feed that want that the fans have for a procedural mystery each week. And also having worked in the Gotham world, what level of fatigue will audiences experience if you hit the mythology too hard all the time. It is an evolving kind of story in that way and we are aware of it but we don't want the mythology driving the ship here.
Lilien: Having worked on Alcatraz, you learn that sometimes mythology can cannibalize the show, or it becomes more exciting than your characters. Your characters need to be stronger than your mythology, and you need to be able to take a break from mythology when it's feeling [like] too much.
Social media has lost its proverbial innocence of late. Are you going to delve into the darker side of it?
Wynbrandt: I think we’re definitely guiding people towards the positive net result of social media, in terms of connecting you to people.
It’s a catalyst for Miles to get out from behind the computer, and out helping people. I think what comes through in the show is that same kind of spirit, that we are on the side of getting involved in people's lives in a real-life way and that the barrier to entry is through the God account and the social media angle.
So, if you had God asking to friend you, would you ignore it, or accept?
Lilien: If God can help us write a couple more episodes, that would be great. [Laughs] I think we would have the same exact reaction as Miles. That clearly someone out there is doing this. How could it be possible? But that's the fun of the show. How is it happening? But then ultimately, is that as important as the lives that we're changing?
God Friended Me airs Sunday nights on CBS.