‘Living Biblically’: Biblically Bad
Living Biblically, which premiered Monday night, is the newest multi-cam CBS sitcom that reinforces all of the worst stereotypes about CBS sitcoms. It centers around a white guy (Chip, played by Jay R. Ferguson) with a cushy media job (where he hangs out with his Black best friend Vince, played by Tony Rock) married to a woman he treats poorly (Leslie, played by Lindsey Kraft) and who, by doing almost nothing, gets tremendous attention from everyone in his orbit at all times. The show’s premise — that Chip decides to live his life according to the Bible’s literal text — would be easily backgrounded by the characters’ lack of dynamism if it weren’t itself so ill-conceived and banal. Episode plots concern only the most hackneyed of sitcom setups (visit from the mother-in-law, forgotten anniversary), but with the twist that Chip must do everything a bit worse because of his recent decision to follow the Bible. The fact that “following the Bible literally” is a thorny and complex notion picked apart for millennia by many wise people is almost completely ignored on this series. Surely the show’s creator, Patrick Walsh, knew the issues raised by the show are engaging and fascinating. Why he chose to build such a dull, offensive sitcom around this setup and not even wrestle with any of these issues is anyone’s guess. There is nothing to enjoy about this show.
In the pilot to Living Biblically, when Chip tells a priest (Father Gene, played amiably by the amiable Ian Gomez) that he intends to live according to the literal word of the Bible, Father Gene starts laughing. As a religious professional, Father Gene knows that living according to the literal word is impossible. His first example is a simple one: the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy prohibit wearing clothes with different types of fabric (e.g., wool and linen). This doesn’t deter Chip, who supposedly begins reading Bibles. There’s no indication that Chip is fluent in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, so one must assume that Chip’s literalism depends on the translations (and interpretations) of others. He also consumes only a bit at a time, but throws himself in fully; in the third episode, he arbitrarily decides that using a smartphone violates the biblical prohibition against worshipping idols, so he destroys his own phone. There is no biblical passage, to my knowledge, that literally recommends destroying one’s phone. All of these questions could have been sidestepped by Chip deciding to become religious, or begin learning more from the Bible, or even trying to be a better person (more on that in a moment), but the harder Chip insists that he is living according to the literal text of the Bible, the more foolish he appears and the more pointless the entire show feels.
There are, of course, communities in the real world who claim to live according to the literal text of the Bible. Though Chip will likely visit with some if this series lasts long enough (and I’m praying it doesn’t), he acts completely ignorant of them in the episodes available to critics. Chip seems to believe that his choice to live according to the Bible is unique and innovative, and also compatible with his cushy job as a print film critic in Manhattan. To guide him through the Bible, Chip consults with a priest and a rabbi (Rabbi Gil, played by David Krumholtz). Why doesn’t Chip consult with an imam? To Chip, and to Living Biblically, the Bible means the New and Old Testaments, with an emphasis on the New (Chip is a lapsed Catholic, unlike in the source book whose author was a secular Jew). In The Year of Living Biblically, author A.J. Jacobs touches on one of the challenges of following the Bible that Living Biblically never approaches: supersessionism. It is a common Christian belief that the events described by the New Testament make many of the rules in the Tanakh obsolete (and indeed, there are plenty of contradictions between the two, not to mention within each). Father Gene and Rabbi Gil agree on almost every biblical question and disagree on frivolities like the best way to fix a bloody nose. It might have been interesting to watch Chip believe he can follow the Bible literally, then get conflicting advice from experts of different faiths. Instead he sits around in a bar with a rabbi and a priest chatting about Beyoncé (Chip worries that she’s a false idol).
The inciting action that gets Chip into the Bible is the unexpected death of an old friend and Chip’s subsequent depression. His wife Leslie insists things change, especially now that she’s pregnant, and Chip decides to be a better person (by following the Bible to the letter [???]). It’s difficult not to be reminded of a tremendously better sitcom on a similar subject, My Name Is Earl. On My Name is Earl, the protagonist Earl (Jason Lee) decides that his life is bad because he’s been bad. He sees Carson Daly casually talking about karma and embraces it fully, spending the rest of the series righting his wrongs. While the relationship to actual karma was flimsy (Earl believed Carson Daly originated the concept), the execution was clear: Earl was trying to be a good person. On Living Biblically, Chip has almost no interest at all in biblical rules governing kind behavior, and neither does the series. When an elevator gets stuck, Chip prays, and he and his fellow passengers are immediately rescued. Chip forgets to get his wife a gift (concert tickets) and must trek to the box office to pick them up without a cell phone. He gets lost, even though he lives and works in New York City, but gets the tickets anyway, and she’s thrilled. Everything Chip does that’s deemed “biblical” (including throwing a stone at an adulterer) is almost immediately rewarded. He claims he’s trying to be a better person, but the show is content to give him everything he wants as long as he does nothing but inconvenience his friends, coworkers, and loved ones. The show attempts to steer away from outright endorsing a religious practice, but its demonstration that Chip’s semi-Catholic lifestyle brings him exclusively positive outcomes feels propagandistic, if not just lazy writing.
There are also, of course, plenty of political questions raised by biblical literalism that Living Biblically is punting. Many communities that claim to follow the Bible literally also have terrible practices surrounding queer and trans people, women, children, people with disabilities, and religious minorities and dissidents. The Bible has plenty of verses that modern religious people refuse to take literally because these verses better reflect the hegemonies of their authors and time periods than the moral guidelines these religions observe today. As a cis, straight, able-bodied married white guy with no money issues, Chip doesn’t need to worry about any of them. He mentions to his wife in the pilot that, following her pregnancy, he may not be able to touch her while she’s menstruating, but that can wait (at what point will Chip, like author Jacobs, stop shaking women’s hands entirely to avoid possibly touching someone who’s menstruating?). If Chip’s prepared to stone an adulterer coworker, how will he begin treating his gay coworkers? After his wife gives birth, what will Chip do about birth control? There’s an interesting show to be made about the ways religious communities and individuals work to reconcile egalitarian values with the literal text of the Bible; Living Biblically is not that show, or any show that could be described as “interesting.”
This is really the biggest question of all: Why not just make a show about a religious person? If Chip had chosen to instead get more in touch with his Catholic roots and try to live his normal life as a strict Catholic, there would be plenty from which to mine comedy. If Chip had chosen to convert to another religion entirely, Ibrahimic or otherwise, that could have been a source of humor and challenging questions of where religion fits in our modern lives. Instead, Living Biblically is just another bad CBS sitcom where everything works out neatly for our hero. Chip arbitrarily decides to follow the Bible literally and does so haphazardly at best. At a time when interpretations of the Bible have enormous consequences in our day-to-day lives and in our nation’s politics, Living Biblically suggests it’s all so much simpler: Just do what the Bible says in whatever translation you can find, and all of your problems will be solved. If the show were actually funnier this would all be so much easier to tolerate. Since it refuses to be funny or interesting or intelligent, this show provides nothing. Your time would be better spent reading the Bible.
Photo by Sonja Flemming/CBS.
Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout based in Riverside, CA. He is the creator and writer of the web series Doing Good.