‘Miracle Workers’ and ‘PEN15’ work wonders for serialized comedy

(CNN)Thus far 2019 is turning out to be an interesting year for TV comedies, with two edgy, worthwhile shows, Hulu’s “PEN15” and TBS’ “Miracle Workers,” premiering in the next week, following Comedy Central’s “The Other Two” and Netflix’s harder-to-like “Russian Doll.”

“PEN15” turns out to be a lot more thoughtful than it’s rather embarrassing, unnecessarily juvenile title, employing a device that at first seems utterly creepy, with two adult women (Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle) playing 13-year-old versions of themselves, surrounded by actual teenagers.
Get past that, though, and the show bores into just how vivid those middle-school memories are — in much the way the movie “Eighth Grade” captured the confusion, longing and angst associated with puberty and children’s casual cruelty — as well as how friendships are tested during those formative years.
    Set in 2000, Erskine and Konkle (who also created the show with director Sam Zvibleman) approximate the whininess, pouting and eye-rolling associated with the age they’re playing. Never mind that when they dance with a boy, they sort of tower over them.
    The first thought that came to mind was the old “Saturday Night Live” sketch, where Gilda Radner and company danced around like little girls. Yet the suspension of disbelief largely works here, ultimately, because the situations are so relatable, from dealing with parents breaking up to the awkwardness of a school dance.
    Even so, “PEN15” feels like an experiment that proves reasonably successful and probably shouldn’t be repeated — a sketch stretched to its limit, which would only be marred by trying to put a “2” on the end of it.
    “Miracle Workers,” meanwhile, features some marquee names (Steve Buscemi, Daniel Radcliffe) in a series that braves the third rail of religion — and not incidentally, the apocalypse — in a mostly amusing manner.
    Buscemi is God, albeit a rather slovenly, impulsive version of the Almighty, who decides that he’s going to destroy the Earth. (He also isn’t above lashing out at mortals, instructing an underling to punish comic and noted atheist Bill Maher.)
    Heaven, however, is a place with its own twisted bureaucratic norms and quirks, which means there are an assortment of functionaries trying to do their work and deal with the place’s internal politics. So it falls to a pair of low-level angels — Craig (Radcliffe), and eager new arrival Eliza (“Blockers'” Geraldine Viswanathan) — to try to save Earth by essentially making a high-stakes wager with God, seeing if they can bring two lovelorn people together.
    What ensues is strange, eccentric but fitfully funny — Buscemi, in particular, is a hoot — a hallmark of series creator Simon Rich, who also created “Man Seeking Woman,” and again based the show on one of his books, “What in God’s Name.” (Rich has also worked for “SNL,” and its patriarch, Lorne Michaels, is among the producers.)
    “Miracle Workers” loses momentum after the early going, but it manages to maintain an element of suspense by counting down to the world’s destruction, as Craig and Eliza’s well-meaning attempts keep running into unexpected hurdles.
      Still, there’s an underlying sweetness to the series that helps it get past the rough patches. Thanks to that, “Miracle Workers” is a show that works, mostly, in not-so-mysterious ways.
      “PEN15” premieres Feb. 8 on Hulu. “Miracle Workers” premieres Feb. 12 at 10:30 p.m. on TBS. Like CNN, TBS is part of WarnerMedia.

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