Set aside any suggestion implied by trailers for Netflix’s Messiah that it is primarily an international thriller or a grand mystery on a global scale. It isn’t the least bit thrilling nor, for all of its big questions, all that mysterious.
Messiah, which boasts Mark Burnett and Roma Downey among its producers, is basically Netflix’s attempt to make Left Behind.
And that’s fine! Why should Netflix, which targets every possible audience with the precision of a gopher-hunting farmer with a shotgun loaded with buckshot, not target an evangelical or evangelical-adjacent audience?
Just don’t be fooled by the Netflix auspices, the reasonably decent production values and a couple wildly overqualified castmembers — an annual Yuletime viewing of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang offered a reminder that Michelle Monaghan should be a star of the highest stature — into thinking that what Messiah aspires to is closer to Homeland or Fauda than God’s Not Dead. I was fooled, or maybe I was just a professional doing due diligence, which kept me watching through 10 episodes to see if eventually Messiah would do something surprising or courageous or powerful. If you’re on the fence on this one, can I assure you in spoiler-free fashion that I’ve watched the entire first season of the show and it does not do any of those things?
And if you’re not on the fence and you’re eager to watch Messiah…enjoy. My saying it’s a badly made show doesn’t make it exist any less. It’s a mainstream TV show about the eschatological return of the messiah, which is clearly a victory of some sort for people who aren’t TV critics.
Created by Michael Petroni, who co-created ABC’s similar but superior Miracles, Messiah asks a very clear question: If a man appeared in 2019 claiming to be a prophet of God and built a sizable following through media attention and even social media exploits, how would secular society — really, how would “non-Christian society” — respond? Would he be embraced? Doubted? Treated as a charlatan and a fraud?
Here, that man is the unnamed figure known as Al-Masih (Mehdi Dehbi) — early reports that the character was named “Al-Masih ad-Dajjal,” a very specific Muslim figure, were completely false. Al-Masih begins attracting followers in Syria and, as you might expect, his increased influence causes unrest among the Israelis, particularly an agnostic Shin Bet agent named Aviram (Tomer Sisley), and in corners of the American intelligence establishment, represented by Monaghan’s Eva Geller, a doubting and vaguely Jewish CIA operative. Plenty of Muslim religious figures also have concerns about Al-Masih.
You know who doesn’t have concerns? A Baptist family operating out of a tiny town in Texas. Father Felix (John Ortiz) has begun to doubt his role as minister of a diminishing flock. Mother Anna (Melinda Page Hamilton) is drinking on the side and hoping to reach out to her successful televangelist father (Beau Bridges, beyond wasted) for financial help. And daughter Rebecca (Stefania LaVie Owen) is just looking for a way out of town, which may come in a hunky, messianic form.
It’s not a coincidence that as depicted in Messiah, the greatest sin associated with the Christian responses to Al-Masih is an excess of credulity. Reactions from the Muslim characters, stripped of any religious specificity at all, form an arc so predictable that the series suffers from how slowly and cumbersomely it lurches toward inevitability. And as for the Jewish characters? Such as they exist, they express their doubts in stubborn and intellectual fashion divorced from any faith at all, but is that the same as the series having a fundamentally anti-Semitic undercurrent?
Well, at one point Eva’s character declares, “What was Jesus, after all? Just a populist politician with an ax to grind against the Roman Empire” and Aviram, prone to self-hatred, replies, “Wow. Spoken like a true Jew.”
And she doesn’t punch him in the face. In fact, we’re supposed to inexplicably think there’s sexual chemistry between the characters. So draw your own conclusions.
As such things go, the series’ contempt for the media is far less obscured. CNN, embodied by an underused Jane Adams, is the primary avatar for cartoonish obliviousness, but even Fox News is featured by name without being treated as an improvement. Perhaps more than any other depicted facet of society, this is where I found Messiah least convincing in its treatment of potential responses to this unique situation. It has a lot of competition, including a laughable treatment of how a messianic figure arriving in America might intersect with the current immigration debate, complete with an ACLU lawyer who you know works for the ACLU because she chides Al-Masih for using the phrase “God willing.”
None of this ideological stuff would matter as much if Messiah weren’t so dramatically inert. Especially in the early episodes, the intercutting between various storylines consistently saps the momentum from each narrative. Whenever you think the show is finding its footing, we’re treated to another in a litany of scenes in which a nonbeliever sits down with Al-Masih in one of his various confinements and they have a conversation that begins with, “But who are you REALLY?” and continues with a lot of enigmatic staring.
Dehbi’s performance, at least 75 percent cheekbones and illogically groomed facial hair, seems to have been directed mostly with the exhortation, “Be more beatific!” He’s an Abercrombie catalog deity and yet nobody stops and says, “Were you recruited from Central Casting?” For all of its provocative questions, “What if the messiah wasn’t a dreamboat?” is one Messiah dares not broach.
For all of the series’ attempted end-of-the-world intensity, very few of its performances are all that memorable. Monaghan and Sisley play their skepticism as well as they can. I guess. Owen fares the best of the actors in the Texas part of the storyline, though there’s minor amusement to Ortiz’s wandering accent. I got a couple big laughs from Michael O’Neill as a John Bolton-esque figure in the White House, and the religious identity of the President, and the actor playing him, are interesting enough to leave as surprises for anybody bothering to stick with the show.
Adding a patina of class is director James McTeigue, who occasionally captures an evocative image or two when he isn’t being stymied by a middling budget and the sluggish structure.
Messiah is overtly proud of the audacity of its faith, as if recent shows like USA’s Dig and The CW’s The Messengers hadn’t taken different but comparably flawed approaches to a new messianic age. Eoghan O’Donnell, creator of The Messengers, is a writer here and Ori Pfeffer, one of the stars of Dig, has a pointless supporting role. Lack of originality and quality aside, I think this is a perfectly worthy thing for Netflix to be doing. Every box has to be checked! Just be aware of what you’re watching going in.
Cast: Mehdi Dehbi, Tomer Sisley, Michelle Monaghan, John Ortiz, Melinda Page Hamilton, Stefania LaVie Owen, Jane Adams, Sayyid El Alami, Fares Landoulsi and Wil Traval
Creator: Michael Petroni
Premieres Wednesday, Jan. 1, on Netflix.