Television Review: ‘The Bible’ Mini-Series on the History Channel

March 2nd, 2013

Joe Alblas/History

The History Channel series “The Bible.”

Mark Burnett, an impresario of reality television, has surely encountered the question before: How do you make viewers believe what they’re seeing? Did those “Survivor” contestants really eat that stuff? Would any of these seemingly intelligent “Apprentice” candidates actually want to work for Donald Trump?

Mr. Burnett and his wife, Roma Downey, gave themselves a chance to tackle the ultimate make-me-believe-it challenge when they decided to produce “The Bible,” a 10-hour dramatization that begins on Sunday on History. Instead of embracing this challenge, they ducked it, serving up a rickety, often cheesy spectacle that is calculated to play well to a certain segment of the already enlisted choir but risks being ignored or scorned in other quarters.

The mini-series certainly seems unlikely to be much of a recruitment tool for Christianity, putting the emphasis on moments of suffering rather than messages of joy, and not just when it comes time for the Crucifixion. In this heavy-handed treatment, having Jesus born in a manger is not enough; the arrival also has to occur during what looks like a typhoon. Because why have a moderate amount of hardship when you can have an excess of it?

The feelings behind the series may be sincere — Ms. Downey has said that she and her husband “felt called to do this” — but the approach here actually shows a lack of faith in the power of the biblical stories. The real Bible is a layered, often lyrical epic in which personal journeys are intertwined with collective ones, and human failings bump up against human strivings.

Mr. Burnett and Ms. Downey, their actors (Ms. Downey herself is one) and especially their adapters don’t have nearly the skill to translate such a thing to the small screen in a way that does justice to its complexity. The best they can do is a black-and-white simplification in which villains often come across as laughable caricatures because the creators are so eager to make sure that everyone realizes that they’re villains.

Mel Gibson, of course, already proved that there is a substantial audience for a suffering-heavy treatment of Christianity with “The Passion of the Christ.” But Mr. Gibson’s movie had the advantage of a narrow focus. By taking on the entire Bible, even at 10 hours in length, Mr. Burnett and Ms. Downey force themselves into a clumsy “Bible’s greatest hits” approach.

This doesn’t serve the source material — so rich in interconnections across time — very well, and it doesn’t make for very involving television. Abraham, Moses, David, Daniel and the other great biblical figures aren’t really developed in a way that illuminates them or makes them linger in our minds; they are simply called forth to perform a set piece or two. It’s like a trip through a Christian theme park. “Next stop on the tour, ladies and gentlemen: the Noah’s ark tableau, followed by the Daniel in the lion’s den diorama.”

That might be tolerable if effort had gone into providing some connective tissue to relate the scenes organically. Instead a bland narration fills the gaps between them, covering leaps of decades or even centuries, not to mention some of Christianity’s pivotal tenets. It is the narrator who announces that God has given Moses the great laws of life, the Ten Commandments, a curiously momentous thing to leave to a voice-over.

The result is a mini-series full of emoting that does not register emotionally, a tableau of great biblical moments that doesn’t convey why they’re great. Those looking for something that makes them feel the power of the Bible would do better to find a good production of “Godspell” or “Jesus Christ Superstar.” And those thinking that the ancient miracles might be better served by the special effects available in 2013 than they have been in previous versions should prepare for disappointment. The Red Sea parts no more convincingly here than it did for Charlton Heston in 1956.

The Bible

History, Sunday nights at 8, Eastern and Pacific times; 7, Central time.

Produced for History by Lightworkers Media and Hearst Entertainment & Syndication. Created by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey; Mr. Burnett, Ms. Downey and Richard Bedser, executive producers; Dirk Hoogstra and Julian P. Hobbs, executive producers for History; Keith David, narrator; Hans Zimmer, composer.

WITH: Roma Downey (Mother Mary), Diogo Morgado (Jesus Christ), Darwin Shaw (Peter), Sebastian Knapp (John), Amber Rose Revah (Mary Magdalene), Greg Hicks (Pilate) and Simon Kunz (Nicodemus).

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