It's an unlikely concept, and certainly one that could never be done in live-action. So prepare yourself for prime time's first religious-themed animated comedy, NBC's "God, the Devil and Bob" (previews 8:30 p.m. Thursday; premieres in its regular time slot March 14 at 8:30 p.m.), an amusing but not laugh-out-loud funny show.
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"God, the Devil and Bob"
When: 8:30 p.m. Thursday on NBC.
Starring:The voices of: James Garner, Alan Cumming, French Stewart.
It's one of the stranger concepts to creep into prime time in recent years, and it may prove too philosophical. God (voice of James Garner) considers "chucking the whole thing" - Earth and humanity - and starting over, which makes the Devil (Alan Cumming) dance. But God's not ready to throw in the towel yet, so he makes a deal with the Devil, allowing him to pick someone whose actions will prove or disprove whether the world is worth saving.
"You can't tease me, like with the flood," the Devil warns.
The Devil picks Bob (French Stewart), a 32-year-old Detroit auto worker. He's a well-meaning family guy (Laurie Metcalf gives voice to his wife, Donna), but a bit of a lout. Certainly not a save-the-world type. Of course Bob manages to pull it off so there can be additional episodes.
Depending on religious background, viewers may be more or less inclined to approve of the depiction of God. He looks like Jerry Garcia. But in the three episodes made available for preview, there's certainly nothing egregiously sacrilegious in "God, the Devil and Bob."
The show's funniest moments derive from God's observations. Bob has a 13-year-old daughter, Megan (Nancy Cartwright), and a 6-year-old son, Andy (Kath Soucie), and God assures him Andy will be just fine. But Megan might be headed for trouble.
"A long time ago we made a deal," God tells Bob of another pact with the Devil. "I get them until they're 12, he gets them until they're 20."
It's a good line (and explains a lot), but some viewers might not cotton to the idea of God and the Devil dealing. Or the depiction of their relationship. In this show they're not enemies, but more like friendly competitors. In one episode they even consider sitting down for dinner together.
Politically, this God seems fairly liberal. He definitely wants the meek to inherit, chastising mega-stores that "kill the soul of the neighborhood." Naturally, the Devil is a big box store fan.
The Devil also feels perpetually slighted. God gets credit for putting a double rainbow over Detroit, but the Devil complains, "I do a three-headed goat and get nothing."
Garner may seem an unlikely choice to voice God (where's James Earl Jones?), but he fits the bill, especially given the laid-back, regular joe depiction of God.
"There's sort of a casual authority, which we really wanted to capture in God," said series creator Matthew Carlson about Garner's vocal performance.
Cumming, a Tony-winner for Broadway's "Cabaret," is an obvious choice for the Devil, while Stewart, as Bob, segues into a far more normal character than his "3rd Rock from the Sun" persona. The only strange thing is Bob's appearance. He looks like Robert Downey Jr., who was originally cast as Bob before his own dealings with the Devil landed him in jail.
At last month's Television Critics Association press tour, Carlson, a former seminary student, said it wasn't his intention to do a religious show.
"My background prepared me for dealing with the subject matter, but I'm more drawn to the characters than the religious aspects of the show," he said. "I just wanted to do a show with God and the Devil, and I guess you can't avoid being religious if you're going to have God as a character."
Carlson said the show reflects the age-old concept of a Devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other as "a metaphor for everybody's relationship with God and the Devil."
But will viewers want a relationship with an animated sitcom on NBC's schedule? They haven't in the past (anyone remember 1998's "Stressed Eric"?), but with "God, the Devil and Bob," it could go either way. Just look at the players.