Given the malleable nature of the TBS anthology series, creator Simon Rich was presented with a blank canvas for Season 2. Rich made the decision to leave behind the polished halls of Heaven Inc. for the grimy streets of a medieval town, and radically change his entire cast of characters in the process. According to Rich, “the beauty” of the format is being able to pivot the series on a dime and explore whatever themes come naturally.
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Whereas Season 1 of “Miracle Workers” was based on Rich’s 2012 novel “What in God’s Name” and dealt with love and fickle nature of life on earth, “Dark Ages” is based on an as-yet-unpublished short story and tackles the struggles of Geraldine Viswanathan and Radcliffe’s characters to move beyond their respective family businesses of excrement removal and tyrannical kingship.
When it comes to forming each new season, Rich says the length and detail of the source material doesn’t play a wholly essential role, but rather serves as “the basic thematic, comedic thrust” of the season, as well as providing a couple of central characters.
After Season 1, it was literally back to the drawing board for Rich and his writers.
“The short story is just a jumping off point. I purposefully asked the writing staff to not read it because I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re tied to any text,” he says. “Then we just put up pictures of the cast on the wall and stared at their faces for weeks and months; we moved them around. That’s what so fun about this particular show: we have such an amazing cast, it’s not about, ‘How do we squeeze this guy in?’”
Looking at Buscemi’s picture on the wall, Rich says the decision was made to make his new character Eddie a laborer. However, Rich didn’t specify until later exactly in what field of labor the character would be.
Some might see the role change as a dramatic fall from grace, but not Buscemi. It turns out that the veteran actor is far more familiar with his newest role than people might think.
Buscemi’s father, John Buscemi, was a sanitation worker for 30 years and, like Eddie, took pride in his work and wanted his sons to take up the family business.
“When Simon told me about this character, the first thing I said to him was I know this guy, that’s my Dad,” Buscemi says. “I have three brothers and he made us all take whatever civil service test came up when we were 18, whether that was sanitation, cops, fire department, we just had to do it; we were living under his roof, we had to do it. He never complained about what he did, he just provided for us and he was pretty humble about it.”
Despite being “open-minded in a lot of regards,” Buscemi says his father was a “working class, Republican, Fox News guy” who often clashed often with his sons over politics and disapproved of Buscemi’s career choice.
“He was not as rabid as Rush Limbaugh, but we would go at it sometimes. But we never let it get in the way of our relationship. My dad is somebody that I admire and it’s great to be able to be at a point in my career where I can play dads, I can have grown kids,” Buscemi says.
Rich says he took the story of Buscemi and his father to the writers’ room, and ultimately used it to guide him in forming the character.
“Early in the writers’ room I said, ‘Here’s Steve’s story about his dad,’ and so many writers in the room related to what it was like to come from a house like that where the parents didn’t fully understand the dream of the child,” Rich says.
As for how the rest of the cast feel about the medieval move, Karan Soni, who plays whip-smart royal advisor Lord Vexler, says it opened up the possibility for people of color to star in a medieval show, which hasn’t always been the case.
Soni says there will likely be some who level accusations of historical inaccuracies at the series, as they did for “Game of Thrones,” but with “Miracle Workers,” historical accuracy isn’t exactly the point.
“This show is completely color blind,” he says. “The sets, the costumes, the props are accurate, but what’s happening in between is silly, fun and dumb. There was a moment with me when I was like, ‘Do we do British accents?’ And we said, No, everyone talks how they want to talk.’ It’s more commenting on our life now than medieval times. The idea is that we don’t get bogged down in that stuff.”
While chaos and silliness — mainly in the form of Radcliffe running after ducks — reigns around Soni’s character, the actor says he had to channel some of the more serious, advisor-y characters in “Game of Thrones” to keep a straight face.
“There’s a war room setting in the show, and the king and I are constantly leaning over this table discussing where we should put our knights, and then it smash cuts to Daniel dancing with a duck. We have to play it like it’s real life — I had to pretend to be on one of those shows and pretend not to laugh when something stupid happened,” he says.
With the meteoric success of “Game of Thrones,” medieval-set shows seem to be a dime a dozen, but Rich insists the idea with “Dark Ages” was never to satirize the form of the medieval drama. Instead, Rich points to classic British historical comedies as his inspiration, namely the Monty Python catalogue and the Rowan Atkinson series “Blackadder,” as well as “The Simpsons.”
Yes, that “Simpsons.”
“You don’t want to rip off your heroes too much, but I’ve never run an episode of television where there wasn’t at least an hour of discussion of a ‘Simpsons’ episode and talking about specifically how we can copy that specific episode,” Rich says. “I don’t even know how I would run a writers’ room if I wasn’t able to talk about that show; it would be writing without a computer.”
With a second season of hijinks in the can, Rich will likely continue mining the long-running Fox series, as well as his own short stories for gold in forthcoming seasons.
An idea for Season 3 has already “started to coalesce” in his mind. Buscemi, for one, is happy to go along on whatever ride Rich wants to take him.
“I never would have imagined playing either God, or a s—shoveler,” he says. “We’re all just waiting to see what Simon comes up with next.”
“Miracle Workers: Dark Ages” premieres Jan. 28 on TBS.