The Bible: TV Review

The Bible Key Art History Channel - H 2013
History Channel

The Bible Key Art History Channel - H 2013

A clumsy treatment of an epic with stilted solemnity.

Mark Burnett's History miniseries uses ninja-skilled angels and a hunky Jesus to tell the Good Book's Greatest Hits.

History has embarked upon an ambitious 10-hour, five-part miniseries to dramatically chronicle the most popular book in human history. The miniseries comes about via the anointed TV hand of producer Mark Burnett, of such seminal reality works as Survivor and The Apprentice, with the help of his wife Roma Downey (who also appears in the series as Mother Mary). Although an intertitle before things kick off informs views that this adaptation means to be faithful to the "spirit" of the book, what actually follows is a confusing -- and very abridged -- mishmash of the historical, the holy and the honeyed.

The biggest question about The Bible is, ultimately, who is it for? It doesn't dwell much on the power of the verse (even Jesus, who gets several episodes devoted to him, is reduced to only a few snippets of his most famous lines), and Bible purists are sure to be frustrated by some of what is left out versus what's focused upon. We fly through the Old Testament with incredible speed but dwell a great deal on an expanded portrait of Pontius Pilate, presumably drawn from the writings of the ancient Jewish scholar Josephus, because that information is not actually in the Bible. 

Those not wholly familiar with the stories portrayed (the miniseries hits the highlights: Moses, King David, Solomon, Daniel, Jesus and his Disciples and more) are likely to be confused by the lack of context, both geographical and historical, particularly between segments, when hundreds of years are leapt over in a single bound. A map every once in awhile would do wonders to orient viewers to where, exactly, we even are (not to mention where in our own time -- the CGI, for 2013, leaves a great deal to be desired). 

Which goes back to the question of who the series is made for. It doesn't seem to do adequate service to Christians or non-Christians, because it doesn't quite "go there" (spiritually speaking), but neither does it give much of an explanation about how the events fit into a larger historical context. It presumes a knowledge of the material but doesn't expand on that knowledge in a deeper way by offering up any kind of dissection or discussion. Although the miniseries is narrated (by Keith David), the voice-over serves almost no purpose. It could be cut and no one would notice. 

The all-important role of Jesus is played by Portuguese star Diogo Morgado, who gives him a culturally ambiguous accent in a world dominated by the English (the miniseries sticks the rule that if it is historical and / or foreign, Americans pretty much expect everyone to sound British. Who started this?), and he is also one of the more handsome Christs of the Max von Sydow variety. His Jesus does perform some miracles, but they tend to interrupt his speeches, as if Burnett and Downey fear they may be getting too specifically religious. But this is, you know, the Bible. It's not a general book.

Perhaps the strangest thing about this adaptation of The Bible is how slow and tedious it can be. The miniseries does its best work when it gets away from the most familiar stories -- Moses, the exodus, Jesus' crucifixion -- and focuses on the kings (David, Saul, Solomon) and Daniel, whose stories are less well chronicled. In those moments we actually start to get a feeling (just barely) about characters as well as a sense of drama, whereas some of the other moments (like the whole of Abraham's time on screen) is portrayed in stilted solemnity and is, at times, quite cloying.

The Bible never seems to figure out how to present itself. It spends a lot of time in the New Testament (at least, in the Gospels), which is already very well-worn territory on TV and in film. Sometimes it stays true to scripture but then does things like adds angels with ninja skills to spice things up. That's one thing the Bible itself really doesn't need; it's a complex and lyrical work full of prophesies and callbacks and a sense of being one, organic, intertwined story. Unfortunately, The Bible is fractious and overwrought. Others are sure to pick apart the deviations from the sacred text, but that's just the beginning of the miniseries' issues. In the end, this is the most well-known and popular book in the history of humanity for a reason: It's exciting and interesting and full of hope. The Bible is unfortunately none of these.