Miracle Workers: Dark Ages, the second season in Simon Rich’s comedic anthology series, wastes no time getting into the shitty conditions of the Middle Ages: questionable (to say the least) healthcare, feudalism, lack of job opportunities. But the show offers bright spots in both the time period and the cast—along with Daniel Radcliffe and Steve Buscemi, Karan Soni and Geraldine Viswanathan reckon with the past with humor and not-so-grim determination. In fact, Soni and Viswanathan play two of the most ambitious and intelligent characters. As Lord Vexler and Alexandra Shitshoveler, respectively, they refuse to be limited by humble beginnings or a pre-industrial society.
The A.V. Club sat down with with Viswanathan and Soni at the Television Critics Association 2020 winter press tour to talk about sight gags, Peter Serafinowicz, representation, and what it’s like to be the smartest people in the room/castle.
The A.V. Club: There’s a huge reset this season—the show is telling a completely different story, in a very different time period. There’s obviously a huge reversal of fortune for Daniel Radcliffe and Steve Buscemi’s characters. But certain things like personality traits did carry over. Do you both see between your characters from the last season and the new one?
Karan Soni: Yeah, definitely. I feel my character is in the same dynamic, where he is this smartest person in the room but he’s always navigating behind someone else who’s more powerful. That dynamic comes back here, too—I’m the advisor to the king, but I’m babysitting a complete idiot, which is always really, really fun to play. The way the story goes as the season goes on, it’s different for my character and where he ends up. There’s definitely a similarity there, but being paired with a different actor this time made the show completely different for me. Like I get to work with Daniel a lot, and we saw each other a bunch the first season, but last year it always the three of us [Buscemi, Radcliffe, and Soni], so it had a different feel. Here, there are days where it was just me and [Daniel] all day long. And it was really, really fun because he’s so great to work with. It almost felt like I was filming a completely different job, and I would never see Steve, which was very sad. Whenever we actually did have a scene together we were so happy because we otherwise were so far away and separated.
Geraldine Viswanathan: I got Steve this time! [Laughs.] But I think, just like on last season, I play kind of the heroine of the show. She’s always sort of fighting the good fight. But in this season, I think Al is someone who is a little more ego-driven than Eliza. This season feels like more of a coming-of-age story, we feel like we’re meeting Al more in that time. It’s like when you’re in college or your early 20s, and you’re just wondering, “what am I doing? What are my parents doing? Are I going to do the same thing” That’s what we’re dealing with here, the energy and optimism, feeling like “I’m going to be big and great!” Then you’re faced with what your actual reality is.
AVC: As she tries to figure it out for herself, Al seems to questioning or just flat out rejecting someone else’s vision for her life.
GV: Yeah, definitely. She’s similar to Lord Vexler, where she feels kind of limited in her position and what’s available to her. And she just is smarter than the average Joe and wants to see the world, to be an academic and experience art and culture. She’s just kind of constantly coming up against the really backwards way of life in her town. But then it becomes more about ambition and wanting to make a name for yourself, which is good. But you also have accept and love where you came from; that’ll always be a part of you. And that’s very much how she sees it.
AVC: You both bring up being one of the smartest people in the room.
AVC: Something that I’ve always enjoyed about the show, including the second season, is that the most competent people are almost always the people of color. In addition to your characters, Lolly Adefope played Rosie in season one, and she was really vital—you guys couldn’t have have changed God’s mind without her help.
AVC: What makes that dynamic more striking this season is that most of the time, when there are period dramas or shows set way back in time, the people who make them pretend there weren’t brown people at the time. Or, you get Game Of Thrones, also inspired by medieval times, where brown people are violent hordes or enslaved.
KS: Right, exactly.
AVC: It’s striking but at the same time it feels very organic.
KS: Yeah, and I think the cool thing about this show is that it’s period authentic with the sets and costumes and everything else, because if you can see the set looks cheap or a costume looks cheap, it takes you out of it. So it’s almost like visually everything looks like a Game Of Thrones, but then the dynamics that we have within it are very modern, like the way we interact. It’s great that we don’t have to be period authentic that way, because then we can play whatever kind of characters they want, which is really cool because it’s how hopefully the world is going now. When we’re making this show we’re trying to do justice to the scripts, which are very goofy and funny. But I love that the underlayer of the show is that across two seasons now, both our characters are these ambitious, competent characters. And they’re not related in any form. It’s just really cool, and people noticing their ambition is great. But it’s always people of color that notice that, which is interesting. But that’s good because then it means people feel like it’s positive representation.
GV: Yeah, and it just feels like we’re an ensemble of actors or players. It’s more nuanced than just going, “Well, Steve’s got blonde hair, so his daughter should be blonde.” We can leave room for interpretation and keep it more interesting by saying, “Oh, I wonder what the family situation is here.”
KS: Something really cool happened with one of the flashbacks; it was about a younger version of [Al], and they cast this little Indian girl. It was her first acting job, and it was in Prague. They flew her from South Carolina to Prague and she came on set, and at that time, Geraldine and I were in a scene together. So her first time on set was in a scene in Prague. And we were like, this is really cool—she wasn’t one of these child actors who’s always cast in stuff. They found her and flew her and her dad out to Prague—
GV: That was really special.
KS: I remember she came outside, and the first actors she ever saw working on a scene were two Indian people. Actually, three Asian people, because it was the two of us and Greta Lee. That was her first experience on set. How great is that?
GV: That’s right. I remember that. Oh my gosh.
AVC: That’s so lovely. There were some other new additions to the cast, including Peter Serafinowicz as King Cragnoor. How did he change the dynamic on the show?
KS: I loved working with him. We read in the script that the king is supposed to be extremely terrifying and also just have this booming voice. I didn’t realize that he does voiceover or that he did so much of it. He was in Star Wars! [Serafinowicz voiced Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace.] I didn’t know any of that stuff. But he has this most amazing voice, and when he has to yell at Daniel or scold him, I mean, it’s truly terrifying. And he’s like 6-feet-something, so when he’s in his armor with a crown, he’s really terrifying, but very funny at the same time. The king is one of my favorite new characters.
AVC: That’s right—Al is dealing with this almost high school-like clique. They’re mean girls—well, mean girl and boys.
GV: Yes, yes, and Jess [Lowe] and Tony [Cavalero] were so great.
KS: There were also just a lot of local London actors from the West End that came out and they were amazing. Like the oracle [David Gant]. They were all really sweet and nice.
AVC: Something else that feels contemporary about the show, despite it being set a thousand years ago, is this idea that we’re living through an especially bad period in history. But if I asked my dad, he’d probably say he lived through a really bad time 20, 30 years ago.
GV: Yeah, definitely. We are dealing with contemporary issues, even though our show’s in the past. I hope we learn from our history, but the truth is that it’s always been bad.
AVC: What makes it seem worse is the idea that things were supposed to have gotten better.
GV: Yes, yes. There are still lingering issues that feel pretty fundamental that have not been dealt with all the way. So it’s exciting to have all these elements with the medieval times in the background, but it also totally works for today, both as far as the commentary and the humor. There’s a scamming episode that has these timeless themes, and all these hijinks we get up to.
KS: Yeah, and there’s a legal episode where—
GV: Oh yeah!
KS: The peasants try to sue the crown and I represent the crown. I’ve bought the jury and it’s just basically—
GV: It’s so unjust.
KS: It’s basically like Al is trying to do something that’s never been done and I’m like the big man come to destroy.
AVC: Along with the hijnks, something that’s carried over from the first season is all the great sight gags. I loved keeping an eye out for them in the first season; as you saw the different parts of Heaven, there were all these really specific, very bureaucratic departments. That translates into people’s job titles and the buildings and all these other things in Dark Ages. Did you have a favorite gag, sight or otherwise?
KS: That’s a good question. For me, it’s almost an entire episode. [Laughs.] We have a concert episode with Fred Armisen, where we’ve transformed the entire set into a medieval concert with bouncers and the concert staff that had staffs.
GV: [Laughs.] Yeah, yeah, yeah. People selling sage in the crowds—
KS: Sage in the crowds and they made a medieval poster with Fred Armisen, and there were groupies. It is the weirdest, greatest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s really crazy and fun. We made a green room for him in which everything was green, it’s just like what a medieval version of that all looks like. [Laughs.] Then he recorded an original song for the episode that we all ended up singing just because he played so much. But yeah, that whole episode is a sight gag, I feel, and that’s really funny.
GV: The oracle comes to mind.
KS: Oh yeah! I never worked with him.
GV: That’s one of my favorite characters. The oracle. Yes. The kind of all-seeing person who then just hangs out at the pub and is kind of annoying to hang out with. I love him.
KS: He keeps popping in at all times.
GV: Yeah, and he just wants to be our friend.
KS: He calls Al a bitch.
GV: [Laughs.] He’s actually not that nice, but he’s always around, just overseeing everything.
AVC: There are actually a lot of these archetypal roles on the show, and within your group. There’s the person cursed with knowledge, like the oracle. You’ve got the heroine who knows there’s more to life than her town. There’s also the ogre-like king and the fool. When you look at how those roles have played out, is there one that you’re eager to play in a future season?
KS: Yeah, I would love to play someone really dumb, just really foolish.
GV: Me too!
KS: Yeah, it seems so fun.
GV: See, it’s awesome that we get to play the competent, smart ones who are up against the system. But I also would love the opportunity to just be outright ridiculous because I think that that’s usually a little bit more funny. So I think I would love to do that. Someone who’s just like—
KS: Like Daniel on the second season.
KS: You just walk through life just being like, “Oh!”
KS: There’s a lot of characters like that on this show in general. I think that’d be fun.
GV: Yeah. Just someone with less logic, maybe.
AVC: The subtitle for your show is ominous, but how does the Miracle Workers part come into play this year? Because in the first season, there was this enormous threat and you guys were trying to stop the end of the world. Will the show introduce some big goal you guys try to accomplish together, or does some big threat that reveal itself?
KS: It unfolds throughout the season, but basically we’re at war with this other group, this other family, the Valdrogians. You will see them eventually, but every time you hear of them, they’re like these ruthless killers. They kind of look like Dothraki—their production design does, a little bit. At one point, Vexler visits their home, their base camp, and Chauncley [Radcliffe] has to sign this peace treaty. The Valdrogians are always sort of trying to wage a war with us, and it eventually gets to that point towards the end. Our village is basically on the war path and we’re completely outnumbered. That is a whole thing.
GV: Yeah. I feel like it’s more day-to-day threats rather than the first season, where there was very much this overarching kind of plot and goal. Whereas this, I think each episode has its own kind of life-threatening instance.
KS: Yeah, like Ed [Buscemi] being sentenced to death for something.
GV: Yes, and then the under-the-radar thing that ends up sort of coming to fruition is this wall between the two towns. That’s what the show is building to.