Morgan Freeman isn’t God but he plays one in the movies.
So the Academy Award-winning actor is a natural choice to delve deep into our belief systems and some of life’s biggest questions in The Story of God With Morgan Freeman, premiering Sunday night on the National Geographic Channel. Freeman’s affable and inquisitive nature makes him an easy stand-in for the audience as he grapples with heavy topics concerning what happens after we die, why evil exists, where we come from and whether or not miracles really occur.
It’s hard not to hear Red from The Shawshank Redemption in Freeman’s gentle narration when he says things like, “It’s a story we think we know, but I want to examine this promise of an afterlife more deeply.” The series literally spans the globe, jumping from India to Jerusalem to New Orleans all in one episode. In total, Freeman visits seven countries and 20 cities.
The six-episode series interweaves Freeman’s personal background with global questions. He talks about the death of his brother in the first episode while investigating the afterlife, and about his upbringing in Mississippi in the fourth installment, which focuses on creation. “You can’t understand me without understanding where I was created,” he says.
The show employs a broad range of experts ranging from university professors to doctors to archeologists and anthropologists. Freeman is deferential to everyone he speaks to, giving each person the opportunity to share his or her expertise. “Thank you. Most informative and I’m glad you’re here,” he says to Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation, an organization that works against Islamic extremism. The Story of God covers many religions — Christianity, Judaism, Buddism, Hinduism and Islam — looking at their commonalities and their differences.
Oprah Winfrey had a similarly themed miniseries called Belief last October but, by appearing on camera, Freeman brings the viewer with him into the exploration of these heavy topics. His laid-back conversations with people are natural and, if scripted, certainly don’t appear to be. He peppers his chats with phrases like “wait a minute” and “hold up” when he is confused or intrigued. His curiosity becomes our curiosity. “What about those headstone-looking things over there?” he asks Mayan expert Stanley Guenter. “Why do you think the idea of the apocalypse is so appealing?” he wonders to Nawaz.
The three episodes available for review are more starting points for conversations. Freeman ponders questions for which there are no definitive answers. “Did religion allow man to live together, grow food, or did civilization give rise to our belief in God?” he asks in the “Creation” installment.
The first episode, entitled “Beyond Death,” focuses on the afterlife. The host meets with David Bennett, a former naval officer who had a near-death experience in 1983. After falling off his ship and being thrashed in the water, Bennett felt himself being pulled toward a great light before a voice, he says, commanded him: “This is not your time. You must return.” “That light. That was God to me,” Bennett tells Freeman. Other stories are equally striking. A married couple who survived Hurricane Katrina tell Freeman how, in the face of unspeakable horror, they sang religious songs all night long in the dark. “I felt the devil was at work,” Charles Marsalis says. He and his wife say they were compelled to counteract the evil that was surrounding them.
The Story of God overlaps the old with the new. Segments go back thousands of years looking at the tombs of Egypt, Jesus’ believed burial site in Jerusalem and the Mayan ruins. But Freeman also talks to Martine and Bina Rothblatt, a longtime married couple who are creating a robot named Bina48, so that Bina’s memories, stories and personality can live on for her great-great-great grandchildren. While interesting, a human-like android is an odd fit for the series, and moments like this make The Story of God feel scattershot.
At times, the production also is unnecessarily fussy. Freeman is often shown boarding a plane or traveling via taxi. There are slow-motion special effects and some stock footage the series keeps returning to. By casting such a wide net, viewers may leave feeling they know a little about a lot.
Moreover, while it’s a fun title that plays on Freeman’s résumé, The Story of God is a bit of misnomer. The miniseries is more a story of people’s belief systems, how they think God has manifested himself throughout history and what Morgan Freeman thinks about it.
Production: Revelation Entertainment
Host: Morgan Freeman
Executive producers: Morgan Freeman, Lori McCreary, James Younger
Airs: Sundays, 9 p.m. ET/PT (National Geographic Channel)