A great many of Israel’s residents would probably say they’re living biblically. But none quite like this.
A CBS sitcom – Living Biblically – premiered Monday night with a premise a little far-fetched even for a television show.
The program centers on Chip, a lapsed Catholic who is feeling a little lost in his life and his faith. When his best friend dies and his wife tells him she’s pregnant, he goes looking for deeper meaning and structure. And with a hop, skip and a jump in the pilot episode, Chip – played by Jay Ferguson – decides to spend the next nine months of his wife’s pregnancy living according to the Bible. Every word of the Bible, Chip says.
The show is, as you can tell, unlike anything else on television. And while you can’t judge an entire series on its pilot, this one will have a lot of work to do to gain critical acclaim or a devoted audience. The jokes are clunky, the plot holes enormous and the gifted actors – like Camryn Manhein as Chip’s boss – are mostly wasted.
The series is based on A.J. Jacobs’s 2007 book The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. Jacobs is Jewish, and devoted most of his book to living by the Old Testament, with some New Testament dabbling. In the series, Chip is Catholic, but – at least in the pilot – he seems to take most of his inspiration from the Jewish Bible. It does, after all, have more rules.
“If this goes beyond nine months I won’t be able to touch you while you’re on your period,” Chip tells his wife as he walks out the door. “And if you get too crabby I’m supposed to go live in the desert – it’s just Bible stuff.”
While religious Jews observe the commandment of nidda, or ritual purity, I don’t know too many who depart for the Arava after an argument.
The pilot episode sees Jay take on another biblical commandment – that against the mixing of fabrics. Rabbis over the years have interpreted that to prohibit mixing wool and linen – a concept known in Jewish law as shatnez. Jay opts for an all-white outfit reminiscent of Morgan Freeman playing God in Bruce Almighty.
But the real test for Jay comes when he discovers his coworker is cheating on his wife. He consults with his “God Squad” – his priest Father Gene (Ian Gomez) and, you guessed it, one Rabbi Gil Ableman, portrayed by David Krumholtz.
Krumholtz, best known for the TV show Numb3rs, his role as Michael Eckman in 10 Things I Hate About You and as
Goldstein in the Harold and Kumar film series, plays a kippa-clad, stereotypically shlumpy Ableman who’s ready to crack a joke, and considers himself more of a Chandler than a Ross.
“If you need to snip-snip, you can Yelp me,” he tells Jay’s wife, Leslie.
But back to adultery.
Ableman tells Jay that “my people would stay out of it” – noting that gossiping is said to kill three people, the person who says it, the person who hears it and the person being discussed.
Father Gene notes that “the Bible says you’re supposed to stone adulters... of course, you’re not going to be doing that in 2017, because of jail.”
Fast-forward and Jay finds himself at a restaurant faced with said co-worker, his mistress and miraculously cradling a rock in his hand. Let’s just say that someone ends up with a sizable lump on their forehead by the end of the show.
There’s so much possibility for exploration in this new show, but it’s hard to imagine CBS will be eager to take on certain storylines. What will Jay do if he encounters a gay person? Will animal sacrifice be playing a role?
It’s not like we can expect a 30-minute sitcom to explore the nuances – and practically innumerable interpretations – of the well-worn pages of the Bible. It remains to be seen what will be milked for laughs, and what won’t.